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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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