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.