An excavator scoops up a large pile of debris and places it in a dumpster in this file photo from 2013.

The office of the Controller today released the seventh of nine eventual reports on city dysfunction and corruption — and, this time, it was the Department of Building Inspection’s turn in the barrel. 

The 56-page report tosses around terms like “nepotism,” “cronyism,” and “corruption — and that’s just on page 3. All told, the report read like a medley of the issues Mission Local has been focusing on, including the troubled projects at 555 Fulton and 2867 San Bruno, the saga of disgraced former senior inspector Bernie Curran and the Department of Building Inspection’s disorganized electronic tracking system, which is rife with opportunities to alter or even delete files. 

As the controller’s report put it today: 

The department’s permitting and inspection system lacks system controls to ensure completed data is entered into the system and to prevent inappropriate after-the-fact changes to recorded inspection records. 

And yet, incongruously, interim Department of Building Inspection director Patrick O’Riordan essentially denied this longstanding and well-documented problem only three days ago. 

When Supervisor Aaron Peskin asked during a Monday hearing if “anybody at DBI can go in and manipulate the data,” O’Riordan rebuffed this premise. 

“That’s not correct, supervisor. Line staff, only the people who are assigned the privileges can make adjustments to the data, and it usually is management … it would at least be a managerial function.” O’Riordan added that a senior building inspector, such as accused federal criminal Bernie Curran “is not a manager.”

This statement staggered Peskin, confounded observers within and without the Department of Building Inspection, and runs counter to today’s controller’s report. 

“PTS building inspection records can be modified after an inspection is completed by any building inspector or senior building inspector until the inspection record of the property is closed,” reads that report (emphasis ours). 

Managers, senior inspectors and mere clerks have access to the system; dates and comments can be edited. And not just by DBI workers: Non-managers, even in other departments, have access to the building department’s permit-tracking system. 

The permit-tracking system is so malleable that multiple DBI — and non-DBI — employees have recollected accidentally altering records or overwriting other people’s entries. In fact, employees signing in to make changes are given a drop-down menu of employee names to select, and they needn’t necessarily choose themselves. 

And then there’s the issue of items not being altered so much as vanishing. Documents related to the 555 Fulton project simply disappeared off the system for a week before reappearing, which led to a February 2020 visit to the Department of Building Inspection by the FBI

DBI employees also said that records denoting incomplete special inspections on projects that had, regardless, been awarded Certificates of Final Completion were wiped from the system by lower-level inspectors.

When asked how his Monday comments could possibly jibe with the findings in the Thursday controller’s report, O’Riordan admitted he’d gotten it wrong.

“Patrick misspoke,” wrote DBI spokesman Patrick Hannan. “He has since confirmed that senior building inspectors do have the ability to modify permit data at this time but this is an area where we will be making changes to enhance oversight, per our reform initiatives and the mayor’s directive.”

Finally, the controller’s report discloses that much of the most vital information isn’t to be found on the building department’s permit-tracking system (PTS) — and may not be found anywhere. It’s hard to believe the following was written in 2021, but it was:

According to DBI, some inspectors signed off on final building inspections by relying on information written on paper job cards. However, neither images of the job cards nor the information on them is consistently recorded in PTS. DBI acknowledges that some critical data for some properties is not in PTS. Thus, DBI is at a significant disadvantage in monitoring its permitting and inspections activities.

‘Tone from the Top’

This is a bad system. But bad systems are exacerbated by bad personnel and bad leaders, and former DBI head Tom Hui comes in for his share of opprobrium in today’s report. 

He is accused of overriding internal controls, sending his preferred inspectors to the projects of preferred builders, failing to disclose gifts and favors he received, providing favorable treatment and inside information to friends like permit expediter Walter Wong, and, in general, setting the tone for a rogue department. 

Ousted Department of Building Inspection boss Tom Hui, seen here in January, 2020.

Much of today’s controller’s report was spent going through the doings of former senior inspector Bernie Curran. Curran, like Hui, was ridden out of the department at legal bayonet point by the City Attorney’s office; they discovered he’d taken a $180,000 “loan” from developer Freydoon Ghassemzadeh, and failed to disclose it. Curran was subsequently federally charged in a bribery scheme for allegedly signing off on the projects of Rodrigo Santos’ clients, so long as they donated to his preferred youth sports nonprofit. 

Today’s report reveals that Curran was not alone. Tucked away on page 10, it notes that another ex-DBI employee “owed Mr. Ghassemzadeh a significant amount of money when this employee was still employed by the department and was reviewing plans submitted to obtain permits for work at properties Mr. Ghassemzadeh owned.” 

Going through the files on record at the Assessor’s office for the Sunset District home of former DBI plan-checker Rodolfo “Rudy” Pada, one indeed finds multiple documents denoting a loan from Ghassemzadeh. This was not disclosed in several of Pada’s Statement of Economic Interest forms provided by the Department of Building Inspection.

In March, 2020, Mission Local reported that Hui “literally stood over people’s shoulders” to push out the 555 Fulton project. In today’s report, the controller noted that the approval process for its shoring plan was “unusually quick,” clocking in at “less than a day.” 

Glancing at the files for that project, former Building Department plans engineer Cyril Yu started and finished that review on April 30, 2014. 

While many of Hui’s senior lieutenants have conspicuously retired in the wake of both federal and City Attorney investigations, the department remains well-populated with figures who obtained their jobs through dubious means — and have, since, only ascended the DBI ladder. 

The apparatchiks brought in by Walter Wong, Tom Hui and Bernie Curran do not revert to ethical, quality employees because of those men’s departures. 

Today’s report suggests that plan-reviewers and inspectors “certify complaints with city conflict-of-interest rules to deter” among other things, “nepotism and favoritism.” 

That’s a good suggestion. The problem is that all too many employees wouldn’t have their  jobs at this department without nepotism and favoritism. 

Mayoral edict

Today’s report highlights a sickening marriage between unethical department personnel and and weak, problematic systems that can’t keep track of them. 

That’s how Curran could conduct hundreds of inspections a year and traipse in and out of his district and there was no automated system to flag this. Similarly, it’s how hardly any recorded inspections took place at 2867 San Bruno Ave. prior to Curran signing off on the building — with, again, no automated red flag. 

Left unsaid in today’s report is that Curran’s exploits were well-known within the department. And, twice a month, his time cards were ostensibly signed by his supervisor, Patrick O’Riordan. 

Mayor London Breed today issued an executive directive, ordering DBI to take “actions to prevent misconduct, increase transparency, improve processes, and make the Department more effective at providing services for San Francisco residents.”

O’Riordan pledged to implement all the controller’s recommendations, and penned a two-page letter touting progress in the department.

“I’m outraged about what happened in the past at DBI and the way former leaders undermined the fine work our staff does every day and violated the public’s trust,” O’Riordan wrote. “It’s not right and I’m committed to getting us back on track.” 

Joe Eskenazi

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...

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14 Comments

  1. THAT ORIORDAN QUOTE AT THE END-BWAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAA…HAAAHHHHHAAHAHAHHAHAHA HAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHA. Oh my God that is rich. Way to bury the lead Joe.

    1. I just read Patrick O’Riordan’s enclosed letter. IF he were sincere, he would get rid of over-the-counter permitting and those who so quickly automatically approve them without in-depth review.
      This has been going on long before London Breed became Mayor.
      We need outsider competent replacement to rid SFDBI of nepotism and favoritism. O’Riordan is not the answer.
      Thanks again to Joe Eskenazi. Our hero!

  2. Great reporting on a ridiculously corrupt department. I’m sure that Breed’s “strongly worded directive” to shape up will do the trick. Corruption overseen by more corruption assisted by ineptitude is a horrible combination.

  3. Thank you, Joe and Mission Local for this essential reporting on corruption and dysfunction in and around DBI. San Franciscans have long suffered with a system of favoritism and bribery. Investigations have been done, and yet here we still are.
    When Gavin Newsom was Mayor he asked Rudy Nothenberg to come back and report on the problems.
    And yet here we still are.
    Mayor London Breed must take responsibility for presiding over this corruption, as her predecessors must. And now she must ride herd until it is truly fixed.
    We all owe Mission Local a debt of gratitude. Let’s hope something gets done to give us the honest system we deserve.

    1. Well put, Elizabeth Zitrin, I along with many others hope Mayor Breed backs up her words, and I add my thanks to Mission Local.

  4. The current “system” of building inspection will change when wealthy, influential property owners and large, corporate real estate developers decide that it’s no longer sustainable. For decades, there was always a “Walter Wong” type, a go-between, that they could rely on to get their own projects through the building department without having to get themselves personally involved.

    The contacts that Walter Wong cultivated and developed into a “department within a department” fulfilled the wishes of these wealthy and influential entities to minimize the ability of government agencies to properly exercise authority. The influence of these wealthy entities extended as well to the various mayors across these past three decades. Consequently, any complaints or misgivings expressed by ordinary homeowners and small shopkeepers about how building inspection was conducted typically ended in an official investigation that detailed obvious shortcomings and made non-binding recommendations for reforming departmental procedures and policies.

    Historically, change that you and your readers are seeking came in the wake of tragedy. In November, 1980, a fire swept throught the restaurants and casino areas of the then MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. About 650 people were injured and 85 people died.

  5. I wish that the data on this page was as easy to manipulate as the DBI records. If it were I would swoop in and correct the caption under the photo at the top of the page to state the machine is an excavator, not a crane.

  6. I’m considering renting a safe deposit box to protect job cards related to work done over the years on my home. In a 2019 project, DBI wanted job cards going back to 2013. Why? They wouldn’t answer. I’m guessing to see signatures / sign offs and illegible, cryptic notes? Seems like the inspectors were using ipads – and approvals are captured digitally – so why is a card stock piece of paper still treated as if it is gold?

  7. Did one of the corrupt building inspectors approve the faulty foundation of the leaning Millennium tower? I haven’t seen anything about this possibility, but it seems likely, given that anyone in SF knows that foundations for high rises have to go down to bedrock.

    1. Marc, it was Tam Chiu signed off Millennium. His son Jonathon Chiu the current district inspector would be the one signing off retrofit if completed. Family business..

    2. The fault of the Millennium Tower foundation rests with Hanson Tom, who took part in both 80 Natoma & the Millennium Tower; while in 2004 simultaneously killing a Building Inspection Commission, Structural Subcommittee draft of Geotechnical Guidelines document that had been in committee for years.
      That along with the SF Planning Dept. violating the 1999 Prop ‘H’ forbidding the city from making any planning decision that would add to the cost of the Transbay Transit Center.
      When the Millennium Tower was first approved in 2003. it had 4 basements under the tower. In 2005, SF planning allowed Millennium/Mission Street Development to remove 3 of the 4 basements from beneath the tower. This added an addition 3000 pounds per square foot to the tower.

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