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.
This is a bit old. Walter coordinated a series of restaurant remodel/code enforcement favors for Rose Cheung and sisters at 21 st and Noriega. The Cheung’s that run the places Café Bakery, Ice House, Won Ton House now seem to bear the costs of the Ed Lee’s “favors”. All this intergenerational Chinatown Number 3 corruption is out of date now. I have had enough myself. The ‘Chinese’ of Chinatown are elderly. I am going back to my home and native land.
Very interesting, thank you Joe. After reading this and reading another news article yesterday about SF Board of Supervisors actually considering paying $12K-$15K PER garbage can one has to ask oneself~ Is this just another damn scam of Nuru’s or Wong’s still permeating and costing SF taxpayers a lot of money? Seriously.
The scale of corruption revelations that confirm what many observers had suspected, given the inputs and outputs from each component in the system, is eclipsed only by the yawning chasm of silence from elected officials on doing anything of substance to bring an end to this.
Are they hoping that Kamala Harris is going to put the kibosh on the US Attorney’s Office so that they might continue on their merry way Or are they hoping that the public’s attention span is short enough such that this will just go away once the USAO stops issuing press releases touting indictments, pleas or cooperation deals?
Government must be delegitimated at every turn. We must presume that government is lying to us whenever it communicates and that it is doing so to preserve its corruption franchise. We must defund this government, no more taxes, no more revenue, until the parasites fall off.
Activist government and corruption are incompatible. Pick one.
Terrific article Joe. Your reporting about all the DBI corruption is sorely needed. Thank you.
I wish someone down here in the South Bay would look into how the Google project got approved and the real estate speculators somehow bought up all the land just before the project got approved.
Nothing will change long term. The city needs to shut the department down and reconstitute it. Someone needs to write a book about this. I’d buy it in a second.
Thanks Joe, excellent article and GREAT research. It brings questions also, maybe not related. DMV, passports, medi-cal have also been mentioned as part of this corroded, corrupted dynamics, so sick of it and DARK MONEY in S.F. keep up the GREAT journalism!!!
Reminds me of the slap on the wrist the Academy of Art got.
People across the country think of San Francisco as the Vatican City of progressive liberalism, when actually it operates more like Tammany Hall on skateboards. Funny? It sure is. If you have a robust sense of humor.
But maybe what we really need is a third Committee of Vigilance. Just kidding . . . sorta.
Seems to me like the only way forward out of this corruption is to burn San Francisco to the ground and start anew.
Failing that – enjoy the ride, folks.
Great article, with important specifics. Especially this one: “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.” You really hit the nail on the head there, Joe. You might remember that meeting we had in the restaurant across from 518 Valencia in which I made that point. I still wish you had followed up. Anyway, Aaron Peskin made just this point in a supervisor meeting – that the temporary exempt provisions in the City Charter were being abused and that led to cronyism in hiring – and was met with no reaction. I made the point in letters sent to all the “progressive” supes, and got the same. That policy was warned against in a letter sent to department heads by then DHR Phil Ginsburg (yes, he showed honesty) in 2005. He was immediately replaced by Mikki Callahan, who allowed temporary exempts to become the preferred method of hiring at the urging of then mayor Newsom. Now, as Joe says correctly, that infrastructure of corruption has been built well. And not just at DBI; it’s a much bigger story.
Thank you for this reporting. Please continue to shine the light on the rats.
Our politicians are far too interested in where their next move will be rather than running the city they were elected to oversee. It’s like everyone thinks someone else is minding the store. I never thought I would think this but we really do need the Republican party to get it’s head out of it’s lower orifice and compete with the Dems.
This is what I call the new Public Works Gangs standard operating procedure (SOP), not only with SF City Depts like DPW, SFPUC, SFO and CMD where entire families working one generation after another …. but also, other State and Public Agencies. They all have the same common denominator, gaming the system, covering up corruption, incompetence, stupidity, kick-backs, entitlements and the will to defraud the General Public and Public Interest.. Dwayne Jones replacing Durf Buttler currently enjoying a free Federal Club Med accommodations and his puppy Romulus Asenloo head or tail of CMD, selling LBE certifications to the crooks without a State Lic… If you forgot about the Contracts bribery queen Zula Jones from HRC, dont worry we now have a replacement her name is Kimberly Wilson at SFO, turning the federal funding program in to a family and friends Ala cart ……
This also rings true for (at least several) employees nestled into the bowels of Public Works, sometimes called “Mohammed Specials.” To this day, the person who previously served in a fiduciary oversight role with the City’s Office of Contract Administration and assigned to a division of Public Works, who blindly approved Walter Wong’s single-source contracts even as internal procurement staff repeatedly raised their concerns about these purchases, continues to serve in their temporary promotional and management role (one that has no official responsibilities) before retirement.
If the flunkies were promoted to managment, doesn’t management staff serve at the pleaure of the dept head? In other words, they lose their union (represented) cover. SO CLEAN HOUSE ALREADY. If that cannot be done, DELETE the Dept of Building Inspection entirely! Then replace it under another City department. NOTE that If SF can combine the former Dept of Parking with the Municipal Railway to create SFMTA (which it did), why not wipe out the DBI in the same way?
Great continuing crime story narrative with hints of a classic film noir dialogue/screenplay.
Tip o’ the cap to Mr. Wong – starting out as a janitor and ending up Capo di tutti capi of his very own “family”.
Obviously a very clever and hard working man but what events and strategies in his early years propelled him to such heights?
“what the person behind the counter needs . . . I would humbly suggest that I am the only one with this strength.”
That and perhaps hiring the wife of the department’s deputy director.
And renting office space to Willie Brown.
And getting super tight with Rose Pak and Art Agnos and ….
Anyway – there’s another script in there:
“Walter Wong – the early years.”
Some of it documented by Susan Sward of the Chronicle back in September 2001.
Curiously enough the article mentions:
“In recent months FBI agents have been looking into tips of possible wrongdoing in the department and have interviewed city officials and others familiar with Wong projects. The inquiry has dragged on, however, and no one has been charged.”
FBI, please keep investigating until the SF criminals in and around city government are no longer in positions to harm the public. One of the lives you save might be mine. I live in a building that has been undergoing unnecessary and very shoddy renovictions for five years and counting by the city’s largest real estate speculator. Supposedly DBI has approved this cheap, substandard work. How can this possibly be legitimate?
Anyone who thinks Walter Wong’s permit expediting will be on hold for five years is naive. It won’t be Walter Wong carrying the plans through, but one of his minions will. And with DBI seeded with Wong appointees, Wong will still reap the benefits. The only way this changes is if there’s a wholesale house cleaning at DBI. Unfortunately, since City government is corrupt to the core, that won’t happen.
So infuriating. And it’s full of inspectors who will demand non sensical changes that don’t make a project any safer just to throw their weight around. Also random aesthetic requirements. As a random example we replaced sliding windows – our whole block and whole neighborhood has sliding windows – they made us get casement windows.