Rodrigo Santos, Principal of Santos & Urrutia, Structural Engineers. Santos, the developer of a project for a film school at Cine Latino. The mural, under plastic, is being renovated. Photo by Elizabeth Creeley, 2018

On Monday, The Rodbigo Act has its first hearing in committee. 

The legislation the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is deliberating today is aimed at undermining rogue builders, and was authored by Supervisor Hillary Ronen — inspired, in part, by this story about her constituent, Bob Mason. A wall in his backyard is now at potential risk of collapse due to months of disruptive and unpermitted construction directed by notorious engineer Rodrigo Santos — who, despite a bevy of local and federal allegations, including fraudulently pocketing his clients’ money and even, yes, altering a check to “DBI” to read “RoDBIgo” — remains a busy man with scads of construction jobs throughout San Francisco. 

That Santos remains in demand is an indicator of a broken and twisted system. Ronen would like to fix and straighten it.  

We ran a preliminary version of her legislation by a number of longtime sources within the city’s Department of Building Inspection, and they found lots to like. With one major caveat: This legislation, even if it’s good legislation — is legislation. 

Legislators legislate. But legislation alone cannot solve this city’s problems — and, for this legislation to succeed, some of this city’s most hidebound and corrupt institutions will have to change their ways and begin doing things that, truth be told, they could have done long ago. 

Clearly, they didn’t. But change is not impossible. The ongoing federal corruption probe has not only produced a bevy of charges and arrests, but it may yet instill a Damn, you live like this? change of heart among San Francisco’s sullied institutions. 

Well, it could happen.

But, absent a knock on the door from the feds — or fear that one may come — that’s a lot to hope for. And it certainly didn’t happen in the past, when elements of this city’s Kafka-meets-Wild-West land-use system were targeted legislatively.   

San Francisco’s scofflaw builders are in the legislative spotlight now. But, seven-odd years back, the city crafted legislation addressing another San Francisco oddity: permit expediters. 

This legislation passed in 2014, unanimously. You can read it here. But, after the legislation was written and passed, there was no political will to actually address this problem, much less solve it.

So, instead, we can now recount the events of the last seven years in a series of highly readable federal charging documents. 

In this image from an FBI affidavit, Rodrigo Santos is accused of altering a check written to “DBI” to read “RoDBIgo Santos.” It was allegedly deposited in his Bank of America personal account.

“Permit consultants,” as they are more gently referred to in the 2014 ordinance, are now required to register with the city. They must file quarterly reports outlining who their clients are, and who in the city they met with. 

All for the good. But this hardly begins to address the problematic nature of the system, separate and apart from San Francisco crafting a procedure so onerous that permit expediters exist at all. 

Until his arrest by the feds on conspiracy to commit fraud and money-laundering charges in June, Walter Wong was this city’s leviathan of permit expediters. It is hard to overstate the control he held over the Department of Building Inspection’s plan-check and central permitting divisions, which were seeded with his friends and allies, and arguably operated as a department within a department to process his material. 

So, it’s interesting to peruse the permit consultant reports mandated quarterly since 2015. Within them, Wong does not disclose a single contact with any officer of the city. Not a one.

If these reports are accurate, the man who purportedly once had his own key to the building department — and who walked into the employees-only area to personally expedite matters with such impunity that the gateway became known as “the Wong Doors ” — didn’t contact any city officials on business for five years.

And this points to a number of troubling possibilities. Building Department sources told me, in fact, Wong stopped dropping by the office years ago, and began having his employees do it for him. And the quarterly permit consultant reports do reflect that. 

That’s because Wong’s system was entrenched. The 2014 legislation takes a snapshot of that. But, by the time this legislation was passed, it couldn’t do anything about it. In fact, there has never been an Ethics Commission enforcement action against a permit consultant resulting in any public action. And, unlike lobbyists, permit consultants are not randomly audited. 

Contractor and permit expediter Walter Wong, right, pictured here in 2018 with ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Susana Bates for Drew Alitzer Photography.

And that comes back to the larger issue of a lack of political will to take on the entrenched status quo.

Because this was the entrenched status quo: We know because of a 2020 City Attorney investigation that ex-Department of Building Inspection boss Tom Hui essentially outsourced policy approval to Wong in 2013 and fed him sensitive building department information in 2015. In 2011, Hui asked Wong for help landing Hui’s son a city job (which he got). In 2012 Mayor Ed Lee declared Jan. 13 “Walter Wong Day” in San Francisco, in honor of his “good friend.”   

That’s a hell of a status quo. And that’s a hell of a set of problems.

But not every problem has a legislative solution. 

The legislation being heard today in the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee would do a lot of things most San Franciscans would purport to want. 

It would mandate that violations like hazardous work beyond scope or demolition without permit be tracked, and any builder who does this three times in 18 months be placed on a public list. It would mandate the building department to report bad actors to state licensing bodies. And it would require senior inspectors to go out in the field and perform inspections and respond to complaints. 

All for the good: But this hardly begins to address the problematic nature of the system. The building department’s outmoded computer programs, for one, may render it challenging to keep track of scofflaw builders and problematic jobs. The department has had the means to report bad actors to state licensing bodies since at least 2002 — and it’s not clear it has ever been done.

And, finally, Ronen’s legislation puts a great deal of power in the hands of the department’s senior inspectors. Will they use it to crack down on wayward builders? Or will they wield it like a cudgel to settle political scores? It all depends on the quality of personnel the department hires and promotes, and what is expected of them by department higher-ups.

Our city’s Department of Building Inspection claims, in the wake of yet another scandal, that it now strives for accountability, efficiency and transparency. May God help them in that endeavor. But this legislation won’t: It will be a tool for good or bad, depending on whose hands it’s in. 

Based on how the department uses this legislation, in fact, we can gauge just how accountable, efficient, and transparent things really are. But this legislation, in itself, won’t help the department achieve those goals.  

For that, you need more. And always have.

Because not every problem has a legislative solution. 

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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10 Comments

  1. Unfortunately, San Francisco is a cesspool of corruption. Change can only come from the top. And none of the people at the top, including the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the District Attorney and the City Attorney, have shown the slightest inclination in the last three decades, to lift a finger against any of the corruption and, in all likelihood, have personally profited from it. It’s telling that in all of the cases being brought forward (Wong, Kelly, Nuru, etc), it’s been the federal government that has done all the work and not local officials. Why? Because the local officials are all in on it, so there’s a policy of mutually assured destruction if any one of them gets out of hand. For example, you can’t tell me that Dennis Herrera, for all the years he’s been City Attorney, hasn’t heard any of the allegations. He’s apparently either grossly incompetent or he has chosen not to investigate (and the City Attorney’s Office has a staff of investigators).

  2. Really the best solution would be to bring in an outside consultant and completely clean house . Fire basically every manager… build a new modern organization with a significant amount of the work outsourced out of the bay. Folks would be welcome to reapply. Quality displaced local staff should be able to find work on the contractor side.

    DBI needs to remember that the citizens are their customers… and not just the anti-growth curmudgeons.

  3. DBI is massively corrupt and needs to be dissolved in its current form. It’s all pay to play and makes even the smallest of housing projects nearly impossible if you do not have a connection.

    https://www.sfgate.com/local/article/victorian-facade-restoration-skeeter-jones-sf-15940777.php

    Article above highlights how difficult it is to get permits. Imagine in a city like SF filled with residents that oppose any and all moderization, that even Victorian restoration work is not readily approved.

    1. I understand how, to the single issue zealot, that any opposition to the zealot’s grand plans is viewed as originating from a coherent unified source.

      Sad to say that San Francisco residents who don’t want the City to roll over for whatever crap projects that developer boosters throw over the transom have zero connection to a political class that coddles corruption.

      To the contrary, the corruption at DBI is overseen politically by a Mayor and Board of Supervisors which has never met an upzoning that they did not like.

      1. I feel the same way about homeless folks. They really should broaden the issues that they care about and stop focusing on housing so much. I mean they may not agree with the Supes on housing policy, but can’t they appreciate their efforts to remove the Ferris Wheel from Golden Gate Park and make bold statements against fracking and genocide in Africa?

  4. A major reason why building owners avoid getting permits is, aside from the fact that they can cost four figures for a fairly modest project, the value of that work feeds into the Prop 13 basis of the property.

    If you replace an old bathroom with a new bathroom which is the same size and has the same features, your property tax basis will go up by the value of the work, even though it is just a like-for-like replacement.

    So a $20,000 bathroom replacement project will add about $20 a month to your property tax bill.

    As a result it is routine for a building to ask the owner “Permits or not?” And the answer is invariable “not”.

    Once the unpermitted work is done it is essentially grandfathered and so, even if discovered, there is no real downside. It is not as if you are asked to remove the new bathroom.

    Fix that anomaly and we might get somewhere.

  5. Add to that the lack of enforcement on conditional use authorizations. The comingling of dph, planning and dbi enables even more corruption.

  6. That check to DBI would never have been accepted by the City Building Department, although it was likely for fees Santos would have had to pay for the client. It really means nothing so long as Santos used the funds properly.
    I think in general you do good reporting but this is just sensationalism.
    He foolishly altered a check so as not to bother the client again.

    1. Henry — 

      Assuming you’re serious, Mr. Santos is accused of improperly depositing 261 checks valued at nearly $480K into his account, among them the “RoDBIgo” check.

      In case you’re wondering, an FBI agent interviewed the homeowners in question and “they believed that the checks in question paid for permits at DBI. They did not intend for the checks to be deposited into Santos’ personal bank account and believe that he stole money from them by doing so.”

      Santos is additionally accused by the feds of forging the documents he claimed proved these were legit transactions.

      https://www.scribd.com/document/462042494/Rodrigo-Santos-Affidavit

      But, really man, are you serious?

      Best,

      JE

  7. Azul Construction reinvents itself at 312 Utah Street bullying neighbors and getting special consideration from building department

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