Because this is San Francisco, this story starts with a party.
It was May, 2015, and Mayor Ed Lee had just turned 63. The city’s Residential Builders Association, a politically significant group of largely Irish immigrant builders, threw him a fantastic soiree. A cavalcade of elected officials, politicos, movers and shakers descended upon a spacious and elegant Forest Hill home for cake, Irish dancing, drinks and an all-around good time.
Because this is San Francisco, it warrants mentioning that the permitting situation for the spacious and elegant home hosting this party is a bizarre amalgamation of confusing irregularities; the permit enabling the construction of the downstairs living space where revelers at the mayoral shindig sat on couches and mingled had never been signed off and was never inspected by Department of Building Inspection personnel, not even to this day.
This was a great party; certainly nobody was peeing into a bottle. But there is also no record of any permitting that would allow for the restroom that partygoers queued up to use — not then, or now.
Because this is San Francisco, yes, disgraced former building inspector Bernie Curran, now a federal defendant in an alleged bribery scheme, had a heavy hand in pushing through the permitting here. And, in the cherry atop the San Francisco sundae, this is the home of Angus McCarthy, an influential builder — and, for the past decade, the president of the commission that oversees the Department of Building Inspection and ostensibly ensures that building codes and rules are followed.
But this wasn’t just a party. It was a metaphor. Obtaining permits and building projects can be a nightmare for regular folks and out-of-town contractors. But for the connected insiders, the princes and princesses of the city, everything is different.
After all, it was their party.
The seat McCarthy occupies on the Building Inspection Commission is earmarked for a “residential builder.” And while he is that, the humble term understates how prolific a player he is in this city In 2018, he was part of a consortium that obtained the Lion Building at 2525 16th St. in a $67.25 million transaction.
In McCarthy’s own words, the purpose of the Building Inspection Commission is “to make sure that all life safety and building codes are enforced and done correctly.” Coincidentally or not, in McCarthy’s decade atop this commission, it’s hard to say that’s happening. These have not been banner years for the Department of Building Inspection.
As ever, DBI continues to be maligned for self-dealing and for allowing influential builders, often aided by “permit expediters,” to skate through its onerous and byzantine requirements while subjecting regular San Franciscans and out-of-area contractors hoping to undertake workaday projects to excruciating delays and a regulatory third degree.
Following the January, 2020, federal arrest and charging of former Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru, the department collapsed under the weight of its own scleroticism and corruption. A cavalcade of senior DBI leaders conveniently retired, including former Mayor Lee’s good buddy director Tom Hui, whom McCarthy voted to install in 2013.
Hui was quickly caught up in a City Attorney corruption probe and forced out last year after myriad documented acts of nepotism and corruption. Among numerous problematic behaviors, Hui surreptitiously sent permit expediter Walter Wong draft letters, essentially allowing him to edit Department of Building Inspection policy.
Jarringly, McCarthy admitted to doing much the same in a Sept. 20, 2021, sworn deposition taken for ex-Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards’ ongoing lawsuit vs. the city.
Under questioning, McCarthy said that he sent a letter generated by Department of Building Inspection communications personnel — and signed by McCarthy in his capacity as Building Inspection Commission President — to Sean Keighran, the president of the Residential Builders Association.
McCarthy, a longtime member of the RBA, noted several times that he “always” has colleagues like Keighran offer input on his public letters.
When asked if he told anyone at the Building Inspection Commission or Department of Building Inspection that he was sending in-house materials written by DBI staffers to be redrafted by Keighran and other RBA members, McCarthy said he had not.
In short, the president of the commission that oversees the Department of Building Inspection was surreptitiously sending material created by DBI to be edited by the head of a builders group that DBI exists to inspect. There’s a term for this: Regulatory capture. That’s when the groups a regulator is supposed to be overseeing instead co-opt the regulatory agency.
It grows ever more difficult to argue that the RBA doesn’t have vast influence, if not tantamount control, over its regulatory agency.
McCarthy sent us a text on Thursday stating he was heading to Ireland to see his sick mother. He requested we send him questions via email.
As he suggested, we emailed him several questions on Thursday, asking him to respond by Friday late afternoon. He has not yet written back. We wish McCarthy and his mother well, but it has been nearly 48 hours since we first reached out to him. If he responds to our questions, we will publish an update.
Absent answers from McCarthy himself, we are left with the permitting record and the Sept. 20 deposition.
And, during that deposition, McCarthy made statements under oath that are hard to interpret as anything other than a tacit admission of overbuilding the scope of a 2005 permit to erect his Forest Hill home and then applying for a second permit in 2007 to retroactively cover the earlier work (a permit that, amazingly, hasn’t been closed out after 14 years and received no DBI inspections; it ought to have auto-expired more than a dozen years ago.).
If work on McCarthy’s house actually took place in the order of the permit trail, he would’ve erected or partially erected a three-story home — listed as “three stories, zero basements” on the application — and then dug out the extant building to “convert crawlspace under building to wine room and exercise room.”
An excavation like this should’ve required both engineering and plan review — but there’s no record of that happening. Logistically, unless you have an earth-mover that can fold up into a briefcase like George Jetson’s car, it’s unclear how the work would be done without ripping up the work just completed on site.
Well, there is one way: What if the work was already done, prior to obtaining the permit?
Under direct questioning, McCarthy denied this. But the questioning continued.
“The wine room and exercise room, that level of the house was built at the same time as the other levels of the house, correct?” asked Richards’ attorney Scott Emblidge.
“I guess it would have to be, yes, counselor,” McCarthy replied.
But that’s not how this building was permitted: The permit to build the other levels of the house was granted in 2005 — “three stories, zero basements” — and DBI inspections on work done here commenced in October, 2006. The second permit for the basement, however, wasn’t issued until April, 2007.
“Can you explain why you applied for a subsequent permit to convert a crawl space into a wine room and exercise room?” continued Emblidge.
“The original permit didn’t have that in there,” McCarthy replied.
And that’s right:The 2005 application, again, was for three stories and zero basements. And the Certificate of Final Completion for this home Curran signed in 2009 lists three stories and zero basements. It ignores that 2007 permit to build a basement. It also ignores that there’s indisputably a basement here, as every politician in town who attended that 2015 party could tell you.
So, that’s odd. It’s also odd that McCarthy said he didn’t know if the permits for the home he lives in had ever received a Certificate of Final Completion, an astounding thing for a veteran builder and developer to say.
In fact, the 2007 permit for the basement wine room — where revelers at Mayor Lee’s 63rd birthday descended a steep flight of stairs to relieve themselves in the unpermitted toilet — has never been finalized. There are a dearth of recorded DBI inspections on this site, and no recorded DBI inspections on this basement. That’s troubling, and it also means the 2007 permit should’ve lapsed in 2008. But it didn’t.
The price, too, is a wonder. McCarthy in 2007 listed the cost for the basement job at $25,000, which corresponds more closely with a bare-bones bathroom remodel than a serious excavation.
And, somehow, the permit to erect the entire building did receive a Certificate of Final Completion, even though the permit for its basement never did — an act of unbelievable sloppiness by the DBI inspectors overseeing this site. Or worse. It could be worse.
That’s because, of course, Bernie Curran issued the Certificates of Final Completion here. But he did more than that.
The job cards for this project are completely blank, save for Curran’s handwriting; they ought to have input from every inspector who looked over this site. But they don’t, and now we don’t know what those inspectors saw. Or didn’t see.
It’s amazing what Curran could do, even all those years ago. To wit: The permit to erect this home included an express stipulation from the Department of Public Works/Bureau of Street Management, mandating it sign off on the job card before a DBI inspector issued a Certificate of Final Completion.
Curran signed off on that card in 2009. There is no sign-off from Public Works/Street Management on any job cards: Only Curran’s handwriting is on the cards. There is no indication that this sign-off was received prior to Curran signing off on the project, despite the unambiguous stipulation.
In fact, a Public Works inspector told Mission Local that, going through the system, he didn’t see an inspection recorded on this site until December, 2011, two and a half years after Curran’s sign-off.
[Ed note: On Monday, Sept. 27, McCarthy produced an inspection record with a Public Works signature from 2008. Public Works employees told us this does not appear in their computer system, and it also did not appear on any of the job cards accessible to the public.]
These are the kinds of opportunities DBI does not grant to mere mortals. But there are irregularities here that transcend even Curran’s magical abilities. McCarthy’s house is actually built on two lots, which you are not supposed to do. His initial applications to build here list both lots, but he began listing only one shortly thereafter. And yet, a 2005 application to merge the lots never came to pass; it was closed out in 2016.
That nobody in the planning or building hierarchy caught this is, again, an act of unbelievable sloppiness. Or worse.
McCarthy, remember, described the purpose of the Building Inspection Commission as ensuring “that all life safety and building codes are enforced and done correctly.” Again, it’s hard to say that’s happening.
During his recent deposition, McCarthy was asked if he ever had any concerns about a “lack of fairness in the way DBI treats contractors, engineers or project sponsors.”
His answer: “I have not.”
Certainly his own magic touch with the department hasn’t diminished in the years he’s been president of its commission.
In September, 2015, McCarthy and a partner bought a home at 4348 23rd St. for $2.3 million. Their permit for a major remodel was issued a Certificate of Final Completion in 2017 by — guess who? — Bernie Curran. A pair of complaints in 2016 had claimed work beyond the scope of the permit here; both were closed, including one by Curran.
On the heels of those complaints, however, McCarthy et al. applied for a pair of “revision” permits in 2016. These altered the initial permit to “reflect existing as-built conditions” and mentioned additional stairs, skylights, fireplaces, etc.
In other words, after months on the job, and after a pair of complaints that alleged work beyond the scope on this site, McCarthy et al. pulled a pair of permits claiming that, actually, there was far more stuff here before they started building than they’d earlier disclosed.
Well, how did that stuff get onto the construction site? Amazing. And Curran, naturally, issued a Certificate of Final Completion on both those permits.
In March 2017, McCarthy and his partner sold the home for $4.1 million.
Coincidentally or not, two weeks after Curran did away with the last complaint on McCarthy’s 23rd Street property, he was named Department of Building Inspection employee of the quarter.
Curran, President McCarthy extolled at the April 20, 2016, Building Inspection Commission meeting, “is an excellent example of DBI professionalism at its finest.”
And, because this is San Francisco, we can say the following: Sadly, that’s 100 percent accurate.
The FBI has phone recordings of all the top SF official’s and they use them to make them confess. From one of the convicted DBI guys wives gossip at a party.
Thank You for your excellent reporting.
As an architect in the city for 30 yrs. I have seen preferential treatment. As for documents not in city records- not surprised. I have often researched violation notices where planning or building say are no records, then I find some.
It mostly sloppy city record keeping the last 50 yrs. But in this case its some of both. Sloppy and intentional .
Bravo Joe! More great investigative work which unveils more of the disgusting, despicable corruption rampant at SFDBI. How dare those hypocrites claim to be “making sure that all life safety and building codes are enforced and done correctly.”and how dare they rape the City at the risk of the citizen’s welfare by ignoring unsafe building practices and then profiting from the very same behavior. I can tell you personally that Mr. McCarthy is liar and not fit for his position. It;s one thing to cut the line and get preferential treatmant because you happen. to be insider but act illegally while acting on the very same commission you reside over is unacceptable. I have personally reached out to Mr. McCarthy on more than one occasion to highlight some improprieties involving corruption and illegal permitting being approved and he ignored every email sent. The same goes for Suprervisor Melgar. Letters and emails sent, letters and emails ignored. When I read that Mr. McCarthy answered “I have not” to being asked if he ever had any concerns about a “lack of fairness in the way DBI treats contractors, engineers or project sponsors.” I further realized the extent of the malfeasance at SFDBI. It’s simply abhorrent and appears to be systemic. And believe me, Interim Director Patrick O’Riordan is fully aware and his ignorance, arrogance, and myopia leaves him unfit for his post.
Why don’t stories like this appear on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle ?
Joe, just when I thought you couldn’t dig any deeper and come up with another hot story like this you did!!! Thank you for all the careful extensive research you did on this. I’ve always wondered about Angus.
This is a real dirty one. Joe, I appreciate you.
Eerily similar to the story about ADU construction without permits then permits created and approved after the fact…
More essential reporting by Joe Eskenazi in Mission Local. This is the corruption and cronyism that’s been so deep and so wide that nobody but Joe seems to be able to do the digging and analysis and write the story accurately and clearly.
This is a scandal. It’s been a scandal. The scandal belongs to the agencies and the Mayor. It has belonged to many generations of them.
CAN WE HAVE A DECENT, HONEST SYSTEM NOW, PLEASE?
Ordinary people who want to do normal things with their homes have been ill-served and befuddled. And angry once they learn what’s been done to them.
Thank you, Joe. Your series of articles on the cesspool that is our Department of Building Inspection have inspired me to become a monthly supporter of Mission Local. Keep it up.
Is the story about not having a permitted restroom at a party from six years ago? about a house built on two lots in 2005? DBI is a mess, but if there were a real story, it seems like it would have a lot clearer narrative.
Apparently you haven’t read the other articles….then you would understand. DBI = Doing Business Illegally
Forgot to add…..thank you Joe. You’re the only one in the press in the City that seems to give a damn about holding people in government accountable for their actions. The rest of the press seems to simply toe the company line.
That’s the kind of thing that has made San Francisco so hard to afford for blue collar natives like myself. Ed Lee exacerbated the bullshit so much during his tenure such a puppet for anybody. He was bought and sold and sold San Franciscans out so that shit like this could happen and make a certain few richer.
Check out Rec and Park dept…Cosy with…Recology!R&P,Dept removed 90%of our public garbage cans.While contract to pickup &empty stayed same…new cans just more BS from City and Recology…messes on streets is manufactured…🤑🤑🤑😎😎😎
It’s painfully obvious that the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors either care nothing about the rampant corruption in the City or, more likely, are part of it. It’s also painfully obvious that neither the City Attorney nor the District Attorney care about the corruption and obvious illegal activities. Absent either the FBI or the US Attorney in this area launching a complete top-to-bottom probe of every single City Department and every single official, nothing’s going to change. Breed can make all the pronouncements about how she wants departments to shape up, but if there’s no actual enforcement, nothing will change. Without a change in the type of leadership the electorate votes in, and there doesn’t seem to be any interest in that given the voting patterns, the corruption will continue to flourish.
Mayor Breed and the District Supervisors are just as corrupt as the inspectors for the DBI. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find out that the MAJORITY OF CITY EMPLOYEES ARE CORRUPT! ESPECIALLY THOSE IN SFMTA!
I disagree with Dawn about “the majority of city employees”. But that brings up an important point: If we want city employees to be honest, the only way is to hire them on the basis of merit. Title Ten of the City Charter mandates that and spells out a process for it. But years ago SPUR recommended to then mayor Newsom that hiring be entirely on the basis of management preference, thus negating said City Charter. A Director of Human Resources was hired to ensure that policy was used, even if informally: Miki Callahan. And so it went, and the device most used was to categorize new hires as “temporary exempts”. That created a plague of cronyism in hiring, and it continues. Only one supervisor has spoken up in opposition to those temporary exempts: Aaron Peskin. That’s the key to honest government: objective merit-based hiring. I hope we all speak up for it.
Jon Jacobo resigned from the Building Commission due to allegations of sexual misconduct. Angus McCarthy should resign due to this professional misconduct.
it’s amazing how brazen those guys act and they never have to pay for it. if they end up with penalties, the fines are so not in proportion to the violations.
if you are a small homeowner and you get caught with un-permitted work, your final tap can easily spiral out from, let’s say $20,000 of work (illegaly) done to $400,000.
a friend built out a street level floor to live there herself.
10 years later someone reported her and DBI caught up with her. now she cannot even revert the space to the former condition, that’s not allowed.
she has to hire an architect for $20k for assessment; the fee for an ADU is around $120k; altogether $400k for legalizing the ADU. and if a structural engineer will find something at fault, a retrofit could run up to another $250k.
mind you, the 110 year old cottage has only a 600sq ft footprint. and the owner is absolutely not a rich landlord but rather the opposite.
$400k for legalizing an ADU?? The actual building cost of it is not included? Who can afford to add ADUs to their homes? Many are building for aging family members to move in.
I thought the City was going to loosen the rules and lessen the fees to help homeowners add ADU units. Is that not happening? or is it depending on who you are?
$400k for legalizing the unit includes the fees ($150k+), fees for the architect and structural engineer and bringing plumbing, electric, etc. up to current code.
actual construction (framing, drywalling) would be only a very small part of it.
don’t forget a big part of code serves only on the surface to ensure safety but indeed is only code for bureaucracy’s sake, for more work order’s sake, etc. and goes way beyond the safety aspect and often don’t make sense.
e.g. title 24 enforcement here in SF concentrates on CFL lights. WTH, who is using that nowadays? we use LED everywhere and that makes that part of title 24 superfluous.
but have you ever seen any bureaucratic act being rescinded? it’s here to stay till eternity.
The picture of the employee of the quarter is hilarious…3 of the 4 in the picture are either being sued or under federal inditement or both….hahaha and all were forced from their jobs at DBI. Employee of the quarter is where you find the real criminals…wasn’t the ADU guy (Stephen Kwok) also employee of the quarter maybe even the year?
SF corruption is nothing new. The name was taken from Benicia without permission or payment, to replace “many weeds” insult Yerba Buena. KQED travel show says the SFPD ran all the booze and prostitution etc rackets in sf to keep the Mafia away in Chicago and NYC. In the 1990s I drove beer truck for Miller’s Golden Brands and every Friday there was a loud pipes SFPD cop in the china basin warehouse to collect an envelope, since we were never ticketed for not finding a yellow curb and double parking, unlike the soda drivers, poor sucks circling and circling trying to find an empty yellow curb! Recently my limo company tried to hit me with $100s ticket charges from a sf woman official, when the specific dept for overweight vehicles said “if they did not weigh your limo on Pine Street, they no tickets are possible.” I quit that corrupt limo co., already stealing $1/hr in wages and $1000 for “December” Christmas! Previous SST bus company had gotten away with stealing over $10k/yr in unpaid wages per driver in over 5years! Welcome to the ‘wild west’!!