Rodrigo Santos, seen here within the derelict Tower theater at 2465 Mission. His proposed development of the site has not come to fruition. Photo by Elizabeth Creeley, 2018

Dennis Richards made problems for himself a couple years back when he repainted the 1899 Italianate mansion on 22nd Street in a hue that could be described as “Gentrifying Darth Vader” — and then they kept coming

Richards, who had been the Planning Commission’s most outspoken crusader against tenant buyouts, in fact bought out tenants in four units here — for a lot of money, he’d argue, and at their suggestion, but buyouts nonetheless. He also failed to report this in a timely fashion and, to top it off, he and a partner priced the revamped manse at some $8 million after obtaining it not quite two years prior for one-third that amount. (Two of the four units have sold — for $1.495M apiece — one is under contract, and another is slated to go back on the market in September.)

You can do all these things, and you can be the leading anti-gentrification voice on the Planning Commission, but you can’t do both. This was, to cop a phrase from my friend and colleague Benjamin Wachs, the foie gras of schadenfreude; a conga line of Richards’ ostensible allies elbowed their way past his enemies in calling for his resignation. And, in March, 2020, he obliged everybody

So, that was that. But not really. The combustible details listed above burned Richards but good — but also obscured his more substantive allegations regarding the Department of Building Inspection. 

And those allegations, unlike Richards himself, haven’t gone away. Far from it.  

This four-unit structure on 22nd Street, co-owned by ex-planning commissioner Dennis Richards, has come under scrutiny from the Department of Building Inspection. Richards and his attorney say that’s no coincidence. Photo by Joe Eskenazi

Richards, in a Gentrifying Darth Vader-hued nutshell, claimed he was retaliated against by having nine permits revoked on his property, a rare and extreme step. This came after he used his Planning Commission perch to disparage the Department of Building Inspection and question its enabling of a development at 3847-3849 18th Street, a project undertaken by a connected builder and approved by a notorious inspector in which two extra stories were erected and 880 yards of soil were hauled off without requisite permitting.

Separate and apart from the arcana of Richards’ case, he alleged the Department of Building Inspection was a wholly corrupt enterprise, beset by nepotism and favoritism, in which crooked inspectors turned a blind eye to the work of favored builders while bringing the hammer down on those it saw fit to punish — namely, him. 

Richards filed suit against the city in February, 2020. And, in the ensuing stretch, the Department of Building Inspection appears to have done its damndest to make Richards’ case for him. 

Following former Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru’s January, 2020, arrest after a long-running federal probe, the city belatedly turned its searchlights inward. And there was, indeed, gambling going on in the casino. Nearly every DBI figure central to L’affaire Richards and his ensuing lawsuit has been touched by the ongoing fallout. But that’s no surprise: leadership at the Department of Building Inspection has all but turned over, with many senior figures, most notably former head Tom Hui, being driven out at legal bayonet-point. 

A key passage from the Aug. 20 charging document accusing Bernie Curran and Rodrigo Santos of fraud.

Infamous engineer and permit expediter Rodrigo Santos has been hit with a bevy of both federal and local charges. Former DBI senior inspector Bernie Curran has resigned after being suspended for taking an undisclosed “loan” from a developer and then traveling out of his district to sign off that developer’s projects.

The feds on Friday announced fraud charges, in fact, against both Santos and Curran. The former is accused of expediting his permits by instructing his clients (in writing, and captured by the feds) to write charitable checks to Curran’s preferred youth hockey and rugby organizations. Curran then returned the favor by issuing certificates of final completion on these projects, however shoddy or incomplete they may be.

Finally, Board of Appeals Commissioner Darryl Honda, whom Richards accuses of being an emissary dispatched by Department of Building Inspection brass to tell him to back off,  popped up this month within a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit. 

Former Board of Appeals employee Katy Sullivan on Aug. 13 charged that Commissioner Honda improperly deleted his own Sept. 27, 2019, text message chain with Richards (“Hey bro, there’s some not so nice stuff going around about you right now. What’s up.”) from the files for Richards’ Board of Appeals case.  

In 2020, you could write off Richards’ allegations of wide-ranging corruption and favoritism as sour grapes or hyperbole. In 2021, they come off as understated.

Dennis Richards
Commissioner Dennis Richards, who resigned from the Planning Commission on March 4, 2020. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

So the ground has shifted. Even if hundreds of pages of depositions from scads of interviewees hadn’t been amassed in Richards’ legal case, charges of corruption, nepotism, and wrongdoing at DBI would look different now than they did then. 

But here’s the thing: Those depositions exist. Your humble narrator managed to obtain portions of them. And they’re interesting, to say the least. 

Curran and Santos, notably, pleaded the Fifth at a level exceeding the Dave Chappelle “Tron Carter Law and Order” sketch. But Santos did, notably, admit to having employed not one, but two of former DBI director Hui’s children. We are informed these are Hui’s only children, and that makes sense; if there were more, Santos probably would’ve hired them, too. 

Santos, it seems, may have been the architect of Richards’ demise (insofar as blame can be affixed on others). Former building department deputy director Ed Sweeney, one of the cavalcade of senior figures to retire in the past year, states that Santos came to him with accusations of Richards doing unwarranted construction with the aim of siccing Sweeney and the department on Richards. An anonymous official complaint making virtually identical allegations to the ones leveled by Santos came into the department on Sept. 25, 2019. 

That’s interesting, because Sweeney admitted under oath in a May deposition that he allowed an associate of Santos’ to photocopy the plans for the Richards project — in direct contravention of department policy. 

When asked why he would do this, Sweeney admitted he’d broken the rules and responded, “I shouldn’t have.” 

When pressed, however, he said he did it because the permits had been revoked and they’d have to get new plans anyway. 

But this doesn’t work: An e-mail with the plans in question was sent from Santos’ associate to Santos on Sept. 25, the same day the anonymous complaint was called in, and DBI forms reveal Santos’ associate was viewing the plans on Sept. 23 and 24. 

Those permits weren’t revoked until Sept. 30. 

So, Sweeney appears to have broken the rules to disseminate those plans to Santos, setting in motion the process that led to revocation. Which ain’t the same as handing them out after revocation. 

There are plenty of contradictions like this to choose from. Honda, for his part, claims he felt inclined to text Richards (“Hey bro…”) after hearing evil rumors about him during the Residential Builders Association golf tournament. But subsequent texts to and from Honda reveal this tournament took place in the month after he sent out those texts. 

In fact, Sweeney said in his deposition that he asked Honda to reach out to Richards, which tracks a bit more closely with Richards’ initial allegation. 

"Rodbigo" Santos: A check to Ahsha Safaí
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.

All of which is manna for Richards and his legal team. But most San Franciscans probably have more pressing concerns than the plight of one former city commissioner in his attempts to spiff up and sell a Vader-hued mansion for $8 million. 

What’s more relevant, then, are the general implications regarding the Department of Building Inspection. And these are grim. 

Remember that wild project on 18th Street that Richards claims his badmouthing of led to all of this? The senior inspector who signed off on it — which is odd in and of itself, because district inspectors are supposed to sign off on projects, not seniors — was Bernie Curran. 

On that project, Curran signed off on three different Certificates of Final Completion, all on the same day. But, on each one, he listed a different number of basements on the site (0, 1, and 2).  

Dios mio, man. 

Another key passage from the Aug. 20 federal charging document vs. Santos and Curran.

Separate and apart from Richards and his issues, the notion of department higher-ups working hand-in-glove with dodgy fixers to dump on critics is disturbing. As are the fresh federal charges that permits could be acquired in a straight-up transaction for the cost of a donation to a kids rugby nonprofit. The city is apparently for sale — quite literally, and quite cheap.

As we’ve written before, the cost of doing corruption is, sadly, apparently one of the few bargains left in San Francisco.

Earlier this year, Mission Local wrote about the highly disturbing saga of a large mixed-use structure at 2867 San Bruno Ave. Amazingly, this block-long building has only three recorded safety inspections; six times that number would be more fitting. One of those three inspections was Curran — again, a senior inspector — signing off on the final a district inspector would normally  sign. 

There were 20 extra units illegally shoehorned into this building. So there are far, far more people living there  than the structure was designed to safely accommodate. That’s bad enough, but the lack of inspections, bluntly, means we don’t know how well-built this place is — how well it’ll hold up in an earthquake or fire; if there’s any insulation at all; if someone substituted Wheatena for concrete, etc. That’s worse. 

And, finally, the sign-off came from Curran, now facing federal charges and since suspended for taking that “loan” from developer Freydoon Ghassemzadeh of SIA Consulting — and SIA is tied to this project

In short, it’s not clear just how much building inspection is being undertaken by the Department of Building Inspection, and who’s being inspected and who is not. These are life-safety issues, and the impact reverberates throughout the city. 

The contrast between how the department handled the situation at 2867 San Bruno and at Richards’ Vader manse is striking. But that’s how this city’s building department operated, more or less overtly, for years and years. 

Dennis Richards may not be the crusading litigant San Francisco wants. But he is — alas — the one we deserve.  

This article was originally published on Friday, Aug. 20

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Managing Editor/Columnist. 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 editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Thanks to all our honest and persistent journalists and their supporters. We have a lot more coming out of the woodwork now. Joe showed them how.

  2. Great article Joe! Maybe we should include convicted criminals like JOHN POLLARD and ANNABEL MCCLLELAN to that list. That’s right! TWO convicted criminals for fraud that are actually married who have cheated the system thanks to all the paying off they did to DBI and PLANNING and SERIAL over the counter permits they obtained for their projects. The 3 people you named or only they surface. The Irish mob that runs DBI is also guilty. Just go to a RBA meeting or golf event and you’ll know. Tom was a scapegoat. More heads need roll. And Dennis Richard is a slimeball too. That project should have never been approved to begin with.

  3. this is brilliant and thoroughly covered-and referencing one of my favorite lines from casablanca “I’m shocked to know there is gambling going on here!”
    And there was, indeed, gambling going on in the casino.
    unfortunately this high level shadiness makes saying no at DBI the safest position for all the new employees to take, making getting permits as difficult as ever for the average person.

  4. Having been a retaliation victim of Bernie Curran, Ed Sweeney and Tom Hui, I do have a little insight based upon a meeting with three (my opinion only.) My crime was forcing DBI inspector James L. Kelly to quit illegally working on my house.
    Tom Hui could have cared less, as a woman homeowner I was not important. He only chimed in at the end our meeting to threaten me with more fines and time delays if I took my “problem” to anyone else. (i.e. Supervisor, Mayor or BIC)
    Bernie Curran was a smooth as any sociopath can be – lying is his natural state of being – a true criminal.
    I’d experienced Ed Sweeney as charming and professional and I’d experienced him as an intimidating bully. Now, at times during this meeting, he was nervous. He’s a catholic school boy and maybe being a criminal was getting to him. His deposition in the Richard’s case may have been a confession – which is good for the soul.
    With Bernie gone DBI has an opening for a bag man. Perhaps, as usual for DBI, the vacancy is being filled from within. James Kelly could be moving up!

  5. Joe, Appreciate the insights. Looking forward to when there are some new looks at the Planning Department as well. Some old sores are literally threatening and jeopardize their work as serving the people of this City.

  6. If not for their extreme avarice (obviously from years of arrogance) they would have gotten away with it. Expecting the group at city hall to “do anything “ about any of this is futile.

  7. Once again great reporting! Don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
    What else are we missing in this saga? How does it tie to the dead or gone who originally appointed and promoted these stalwarts of public service? And…their checks and balances? Thank you Joe Eskenazi and Mission Local for keeping your eye on the DBI and City Hall. PS: how we doing on holding the DBI’s feet to the fire concerning the building retrofits that put all of us in danger of gas explosions?

  8. @marcos,

    Richard got whacked by his odious, hypocritical, corrupt and illegal behavior — railing against tenant buyouts while doing it himself on the down low and failing to report it per the law.

    Furthermore — and worse to my mind — he’s become a notorious NIMBY all while capitalizing off the housing shortage by flipping rent-controlled properties into high-end condos — the absolutely most despicable “rentier” behavior; as he isn’t even creating a single new unit of housing.

    Mirkarimi quite simply whacked himself, by whacking his wife.

    Adachi, by taking on the public-sector unions, was the only decent one of the bunch you’ve listed — it’s too bad he had a soft heart along with a soft-spot for hookers and cocaine.

    1. The decisive action was taken by the hired help to whack officials they had issues with.

      Would Richards have been forced to resign had staffers not whacked him?

      Would Mirkarimi have gotten the Hayes-White treatment had he been in with the SFPD?

      Each has issues like they all do. But actions of staff were decisive in whacking them while others in with the city famiglia got a pass.

  9. So Richards got whacked by staff for not observing omerta, a political intervention costing him his seat on the Commission.

    Mirkarimi got whacked by staff, the cops, for daring to run and win election without kissing ass to the Democrat machine and trying to hold the cops accountable.

    Adachi got whacked by staff, the cops, postmortem, for a lifetime of holding cops to account.

    When public employees, the hired help, use their staff positions to intervene in politics in their compensated official capacities by whacking electeds and appointeds, then that’s a cancer that needs to be removed surgically with a wide margin to prevent future disease.

  10. One question. The “favorite charities” to which “donations” were made; are they real entiies servicing their communities or simply money laundering operations or both?

    1. Sir — 

      Golden Gate Youth Rugby and Golden Gate Youth Hockey are real entities.

      I may have read over the details, but the donations appear to be legit. What was granted the donors in return for those donations was not.



  11. Great reporting! One question. The “favorite charities” to which “donations” were made; are they real entiies servicing their communities or simply money laundering operations or both?

  12. Great job (again) Joe!

    Can you explain why it’s always the feds that pursue these investigations rather than local or state authorities? (I’ve can think of cynical explanations, but…)

    1. In this case, it appears that the Feds cribbed their case from the Richards lawsuit discovery and might not have done any original investigations.

    2. Because the local authorities are too busy climbing up to their next job! Why do you think Dennis Herrera is gonna take Harlan Kelly’s old job? He wouldn’t even be in the running if he had investigated any of this.

  13. The DBI will host a “public advisory forum” on Wednesday, Aug 25, 3:30-5pm:
    ” We want to hear from you!… DBI is hosting our next Public Advisory Forum to solicit your suggestions on how we can serve you better.”
    Note that they have reserved 10 minutes for questions, suggestions and comments.

  14. Great reporting as always Joe. When one sees the overt nature of the goings-on at DBI, with Nuru, with the Kelly’s, one has to understand just how common these practices were and how either the City’s elected officials were/are completely oblivious or completely complicit. There’s really no middle of the road. The brazenness of these activities mean that no one in a position of authority can say “We didn’t know”. To try that defense should disqualify you from the position immediately. And, of course, complicity should disqualify you and land you in the slammer. Sadly, that won’t happen. Voters in the City will keep electing the same pack of thieves or allies of the pack. And the beat goes on.

  15. The depth and breadth of the corruption of former deputy director Ed Sweeney and former director Hui is only beginning to come to light…..For DBI this could be death by a thousand cuts…lol

    1. What will it take to completely dismantle and reconstitute DBI? The current “leadership” replacing the indicted/retired are all DBI lifers. And it’s clear that the BoS and Mayor are completely in thrall to the building and real estate interests that thrive (or at least endure) in the current DBI swamp. The DBI corruption has been an open secret for decades, but no politico has been willing to take it on. Maybe we need a building moratorium for 12 months to clean house, install modern technology, and make DBi a functional department.

      1. A Mayor who appoints honest people to lead the departments and replaces them when they are bought out.