San Francisco Board of Appeals president Darryl Honda unambiguously swore in a deposition earlier this year that he recuses himself whenever a project from SIA Consulting comes before his commission.
“I’m their realtor,” Honda explained regarding SIA, which bills itself as a “planning, design and engineering” firm. It’s a position Honda estimated he’s held for “10 or 11 years.”
A review of cases before the Board of Appeals, however, does not bear out Honda’s claim: Mission Local found at least three SIA projects in which Honda failed to recuse himself: Two in 2015, and one in 2017.
Bob Stern, the former president of the Center for Governmental Studies and a former general counsel for the Fair Political Practices Commission, said “I’m not sure this is illegal, but I would say it doesn’t look right.”
Added Paul Melbostad, who served eight years on the city’s Ethics Commission and four on the Board of Appeals’ precursor, the Board of Permit Appeals, said, “He should’ve recused himself. This appears to be a violation of the Campaign and Governmental Conduct Code. He for sure should’ve disclosed it.”
The Board of Appeals, as its name implies, is the final arbiter short of the legal system for anyone who feels the wrong decision was made by city commissions or permit-granting officials. It is a little-heralded city body, but an important and powerful one. Honda was first appointed to the Board of Appeals by Mayor Ed Lee in 2012.
In the three SIA cases Honda heard, he voted along with his colleagues to deny the appeal made against a SIA-tied project in 2015 and 2017. In a complex 2015 case, Honda and the board voted to uphold the permit on a SIA project, but only on the condition of revised plans being adopted.
On March 6, 2019, Honda explained his recusal to his fellow commissioners with the following statement: “Upon advice from our City Attorney, I’d like to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. One of the permit-holders that’s before this body is my regular, uh, I am their Realtor. And they have been a source of income, and although there is not currently a conflict of interest I would like to be consistent to avoid any potential conflict of interest.”
In none of these recusals did Honda refer to SIA by name.
‘ … The advice I had been given prior’
Reached on his mobile phone, Honda conceded that, in hindsight, he should’ve recused himself in those three earlier SIA cases, but said City Attorney advice informed his decision to not do so.
“In retrospect, I probably should have recused,” he said. “I was just going along with the advice I had been given prior.”
That advice, Honda said, came from a prior deputy city attorney who had advised the Board of Appeals. That attorney “did not give me as much guidance. The current one has been more direct with guidance.”
Up until a couple of years ago, Honda said he’d hear a SIA case if he hadn’t sold property to SIA within a year. He also drew a distinction between projects in which SIA was a hired representative — and guaranteed payment, win or lose — or if the project was the company’s own, and more was at stake.
The current deputy city attorney, Honda said, has advised him to recuse himself more broadly.
When informed of Honda’s recollection and rationale, City Attorney spokesman John Coté sent the following written statement: “All City commissioners are trained in ethics requirements and have our Good Government Guide as a resource. They can also seek advice from our office, which is recognized as one of the premier public law offices in the country. Ultimately it’s the official’s responsibility to disclose their potential conflicts and take responsibility for the decisions they make. Commissioner Honda needs to take responsibility for his decisions.”
Melbostad, who served on what was essentially the same commission, feels Honda hasn’t done enough.
“If I was a Board of Appeals commissioner and I had received a payment 13 months ago, I feel that’s something the parties to the case should know — and I should recuse myself unless they said they don’t have a problem with that,” said Melbostad. “One year is a very short period of time. That does not make sense to me.”
The February, 2021, sworn deposition in which Honda was quizzed about SIA was part of former planning commissioner Dennis Richards’ ongoing litigation vs. the city.
Richards maintains the Department of Building Inspection retaliated against him by revoking nine permits on his project on Sept. 30, 2019.
The lawsuit also alleges a close relationship between Honda and Department of Building Inspection higher-ups.
It cites a Sept. 27, 2019, text-message chain between Honda and Richards that starts with a text from Honda: “Hey bro, there’s some not so nice stuff going around about you right now. What’s up.” Richards contends Honda was dispatched by Department of Building Inspection brass to urge Richards to stop scrutinizing DBI — or suffer reprisals on his project.
Honda declined to go into detail on the allegations in this ongoing case. But he did deny Richards’ charge that he was involved in any “quid pro quo” offer. He also denied the charges made in an Aug. 13 lawsuit filed by former Board of Appeals employee Katy Sullivan; she alleges that Honda improperly removed documentation of his Sept. 27, 2019, text message exchange with Richards from the file for Richards’ case before the Board of Appeals in 2019.
Apart from recusal matters or legal allegations, text messages obtained by Richards’ counsel and discussed during the February deposition point to a chummy relationship between Honda and Department of Building Inspection higher-ups, some of whom regularly appear before him and represent their department at the Board of Appeals.
Honda conceded that he sometimes texts Joe Duffy, a DBI deputy director who regularly serves as the department’s representative to the Board of Appeals, in the midst of Board of Appeals meetings to discuss the cases being heard.
Honda also texted Duffy regarding golf tournaments, social engagements and permit issues on a property. On the latter, he asked for a recommendation on who could resolve the permitting problem. Duffy suggested Honda hire Amy Lee, a former DBI director who is now a permit consultant. Honda did, in fact, hire Lee, but denied it was due to Duffy’s recommendation or even that such a recommendation took place.
“You just said he’s never recommended anybody to you,” said Richards’ attorney, Scott Emblidge, during the February deposition. “Isn’t he right here recommending Amy Lee?”
“I guess he is,” conceded Honda. “I didn’t see that text and I don’t recall him recommending [Lee]. I’ve asked Joe for recommendations in the past and he has always declined to give recommendations.”
The communications also revealed that Honda had set up a lunch meeting between Duffy and SIA Consulting’s Bahman Ghassemzadeh and Reza Khoshnevisan (Duffy wrote Honda he got too busy to attend and offered apologies to Ghassemzadeh and Khoshnevisan).
When questioned about why he wanted to arrange a lunch with Duffy and SIA representatives, Honda answered “to eat.”
SIA in the news
SIA, meanwhile, found itself in the headlines this summer when senior building inspector Bernie Curran hurriedly resigned after the City Attorney discovered that he failed to disclose a $180,000 “loan” from Freydoon Ghassemzadeh, whose family operates SIA. It is unclear if this money was ever paid back, or was even intended to be paid back, which would change this from a “loan” to an “alleged bribe.”
A September report from the city controller noted that a second Department of Building Inspection employee also “owed Mr. Ghassemzadeh a significant amount of money when this employee was still working for the department and reviewing plans submitted to obtain permits for work at properties Mr. Ghassemzadeh owned.”
While that employee was not named in the report, Mission Local located Assessor’s documents revealing that former DBI plan-checker Rodolfo “Rudy” Pada received loans from Ghassemzadeh on a Sunset District home.
When asked by Mission Local why he unambiguously stated in the sworn deposition that he recused himself from SIA cases — when, in actuality, his practice was more conditional — Honda said “I don’t remember what I said. I had a five-and-a-half hour deposition and it was months ago.”
He added: “I believe I heard the cases fairly and treated everyone equally.”
An earlier version of this story did not make it clear that Duffy declined to attend the lunch invite from Honda with SIA representatives.