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.
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.
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.”