There are so many funny stories about San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection. But not funny-ha-ha. Here’s one.
In 2013, a city politico couldn’t help but notice that the contractor he’d hired was several hours late for a scheduled client meeting. And, when the man finally showed up, the politico couldn’t help but notice that he was in a prodigiously good mood — and prodigiously drunk.
The contractor apologized. But he was too busy. Busy celebrating: “Ed Lee just put Tom Hui in atop the Department of Building Inspection,” the contractor crowed. “And all our troubles are over.”
And everybody laughed and laughed. Because it was true.
Hui quit ahead of the axe in March, 2020, after being quickly ensnared in the City Attorney probe launched in the wake of disgraced ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru’s January arrest by federal agents on corruption charges.
The 11-page City Attorney memo that drove Hui into (lucrative) early retirement reveals years and years of stunningly casual graft. And that was shocking. But it was no surprise, because that’s part of what Hui was put in that job to do — that’s why that contractor was happily boozing it up back in 2013.
Because, most of all, the memo revealed that Hui in essence had turned large swaths of management of the department over to contractor, permit expediter, and political power broker Walter Wong. Which, again, was part of what Hui was put in that job to do.
We’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: It’s nigh-impossible to overstate the influence Wong held over the Department of Building Inspection, notably its plan-check and central permitting divisions. Wong in large part co-opted DBI and ran a department within a department: His people were hired into the department to handle his work. His plans circulated from desk to desk to desk, expedited and often approved uncritically.
And whose job was it to walk Wong’s papers from station to station for their perfunctory rubber stamps? Who was observed by former building department employees doing this, day-in, day-out, and skulking about between floors via the stairs instead of the elevator in a misbegotten attempt to remain inconspicuous?
Well, that’d be Tom Hui, of course.
That the man who was tasked with, literally, carrying Wong’s plans was installed atop the department tells you everything you need to know. As a metaphor, it’s actually a bit on-the-nose.
Wong’s decades-long run as a powerhouse in this city began to unravel on the day Nuru was arrested. His office, too, was raided by the feds, and it was clear in reading the 75-page federal Nuru complaint that Wong was “CONTRACTOR 2” — the guy who brought Nuru to China so they could both be lavishly feted by a billionaire Chinese developer. That developer, it turns out, was building the property at 555 Fulton St., which Hui purportedly literally leaned over people’s shoulders to push through.
Wong handled all the permitting on that property. Funny.
The City Attorney hit Wong and his companies with a bevy of subpoenas. The feds, in June, 2020, announced that Wong had pleaded guilty to fraud and money-laundering charges, and would cooperate in their ongoing investigation (he sure did; ask Harlan Kelly about that). The City Attorney reached a settlement in May with Wong, in which he agreed to pay some $1.7 million and get out of the permit-expediting game for five years.
That settlement is wending its way through the city process; a Board of Supervisors committee on Thursday advanced it to the full board without recommendation.
Is this settlement the best the City Attorney can do? That’s a legitimate question, and the City Attorney’s office says that, yes, it is. But is it adequate?
The answer there has to be “no.” Because no settlement is adequate. No settlement can undo the damage done by Wong, who helped to build and fortify the corrupt infrastructure underpinning the Department of Building Inspection.
“The permanent damage is done,” laments a longtime department employee. “It’s entrenched in the department. The people he brought in have been promoted to managers.”
Wong may be out of the picture. The infrastructure remains.
Of the $1.7 million Wong must pay to San Francisco, $1 million will emanate from funds already seized by the feds. This means San Francisco is guaranteed to receive this money; it’s waiting there to be taken.
Considering the games that can be played with money, that’s good for this city and its put-upon taxpayers. But it also means that Wong, who spent decades fleecing San Francisco and its taxpayers, is essentially getting a break. Rather than Wong paying fines on top of fines, the city is simply seizing the funds seized earlier by the feds.
And, while a five-year debarment from permit-expediting may seem like small potatoes, it turns out that five years is the lengthiest debarment allowed by law. In fact, it turns out there is no legal means for specifically debarring a permit expediter, as permit expediters aren’t technically doing business with the city. Wong appears to have only agreed to these terms while being leveraged during settlement negotiations.
“This settlement makes taxpayers whole for all the contracts and grants Mr. Wong and/or his companies received from the city through processes that weren’t competitive,” explains City Attorney spokesman John Coté. “It also provides for maximum administrative penalties against Wong for ethics violations — and a prohibition on doing business with the city for the maximum amount of time possible.”
All of that is true. The City Attorney’s office has cleared out a number of the Department of Building Inspection’s worst actors since undertaking its probe last year.
But that probe commenced last year, and only after the feds forced this city’s hand by arresting Nuru and initiating a domino sequence that has, thus far, knocked over some half-a-dozen department-head-level figures. Serious problems have existed in this city, and specifically its Department of Building Inspection, for decades. Internal whistleblowers have been informing our city’s ethics watchdogs of this for just as long; they’ve blown that whistle enough to wear out the pea.
“Stories and accusations are very different from facts and evidence. We used every legal tool at our disposal, and we focused on anything that didn’t go through a proper bidding process,” Coté continued. “We followed the evidence wherever it led, and we went as far back as the statute of limitations allowed.”
That’s so. But while this settlement does indeed tally up Wong’s non-competitive bids and remunerate city taxpayers for those tainted contracts, calculating the sum Wong made off with simply through his regular M.O. isn’t part of this deal.
That’s a difficult if not impossible task, and a far more precarious legal endeavor. But it’s also all but certainly a far, far larger number.
Here’s a funny story about the Department of Building Inspection.
It takes place many years ago, on a Saturday morning (DBI was open on Saturdays, ostensibly as a convenience for working-stiff San Franciscans who couldn’t drop by on weekdays; in actuality, however, Saturday served as a prime day for Wong’s people to process his plans with fewer eyes watching).
A longtime former employee noticed someone wandering through the dessicated second floor and poring over and handling material in the cubicles of two Wong-aligned DBI workers.
“I went over there and asked him if he was an employee of the building department. He told me ‘No, I work for Walter Wong,’” recalled the former city worker. “I went down to the first floor, where there was a security guard with a sign-in list. I asked if this man had signed in. He hadn’t.”
In fact, the supervisor of the Central Permit Bureau had simply vouched for him. Of course she, too, was one of Wong’s plants in the department; she purportedly kept a list of Wong plans to expedite in her office.
Well, there’s no fighting that. Not when you’re just a mid-level, straight-arrow building department worker trying to do his job on a groggy Saturday morning.
The DBI employee returned to his cubicle. But that wasn’t the last he saw of Wong’s minion.
“I walked back past the desks of those two allies of Walter Wong,” he recalls. “And, out of the corner of my eye, I could see this guy — he was hiding under one of their desks.”
And here’s how this cost you. Here’s how Wong could confidently charge his clients top dollar, knowing he’d still save them time and money.
When Wong and his people were circulating his clients’ plans among the DBI employees that Wong had placed into the department — as they were on that long-ago Saturday — they managed to conveniently skip a few vital steps. They would receive an initial permit number from the Wong-affiliated supervisor of the Central Permit Bureau. But they would omit the next step: A trip to the plan-check department, where glaring construction problems or jarringly lowballed price estimates could be caught. Instead, they went right to the senior structural engineer, also a Wong patsy.
Wong’s plans were hard to miss; he had the ends painted in bright colors meant to indicate which of his internal people they should be directed to within the department. The Department of Building Inspection is, indeed, a low-tech place, and this innovation draws directly from the Old Testament. Except, unlike the domiciles of the Hebrews, marked with the blood of the paschal lamb and passed over, these plans were not passed over. They were taken and processed, expediently — and with minimal “building inspection” involved.
After circumventing a plan-check, Wong flunkies (who may or may not one day ascend to the helm of the department) would ferry these plans back to the Central Permit Bureau supervisor. And that move neatly circumvented the one-stop division that was supposed to review materials after plan-check.
As such, Wong’s plans eluded quality control on both the front and the back ends.
Questionable construction plans and questionable cost estimates were passed through with minimal scrutiny. The consequences of questionable construction plans speak for themselves — and, since permit costs are calculated as a percentage of overall cost estimates, this was tantamount to filching from the city.
Those costs were, of course, made up by everyone else — everyone who didn’t seed the department with their own people. Time is also money, and the Department of Building Inspection can be legendarily sclerotic for the public at large. There are many reasons for that, but one of the basic ones is that a department molded by the Walter Wongs of the world to work for the Walter Wongs of the world is not working for you.
One of Hui’s tricks as DBI director was to circumvent civil service procedures and hire workers in a manner so that they weren’t categorized as “permanent” — thereby keeping them under his thumb. But, considering who Hui carried papers for — considering whose thumb he was under — these workers were, in fact, under Wong’s thumb.
And many of the people Hui and/or Wong brought into the department have, indeed, stayed on and become permanent. Many remain.
Reading through the roster for the Department of Building Inspection feels a bit like reviewing Bill Wyman’s family tree; everyone is related to everyone else here. Unqualified, incompetent people installed to fulfill the whims of Hui and/or Wong did not suddenly become qualified and competent when those two were belatedly pushed out. Rather, they’re likely continuing their substandard work, and favoring the next shot-callers.
“Walter is one person. But he has rings around him like Saturn,” says a longtime department employee. “Will he benefit directly? No. But are the people he’s already installed here still doing some of the same bidding? Yes. But cautiously now. Everyone’s a bit nervous. It’s like a bunch of rats having a party and the trap snaps down and kills one. And all the others look at it and go ‘Fuuuuuuuck.’”
We can’t vouch for the projects Wong et al. pushed through. But the infrastructure of corruption he helped to erect? That was built well.