Rodrigo Santos, seen here in 2014 with his many awards for running marathons.

On the morning of Nov. 17, one day after former senior inspector Bernie Curran and engineer and permit expediter Rodrigo Santos were federally indicted on fraud charges, staffers at building department headquarters decided to organize a wager: Would Santos show up, as he continues to do on a damn-near daily basis, to pull permits for his clients?

The proposed bet fell apart, however, as nobody was willing to venture that Santos wouldn’t show up. That would be unthinkable. “It’s like he makes a point of showing up whenever there’s an article about him,” said a worker here. 

And, of course, Santos did show up, his distinctive aftershave — detectable through multiple masks — betraying his presence before he even ambled up to the plexiglass. And, of course, he did pull permits. 

Not 24 hours earlier, a federal grand jury had indicted Santos and Curran, accepting the meticulously documented charges first leveled in August that Curran signed off on plainly unacceptable conditions at the properties of Santos’ clients, in exchange for donations to Curran’s preferred youth-sports nonprofit.

Intriguingly, one of the properties mentioned in both the August charging document and the November indictment is on the “1300 block of Utah.” An incriminating text chain is produced in the charging document between Santos and “Client-9,” who is described as “an individual working on behalf of the owners of the property.” 

Your humble narrator tracked down the transaction in question, and it was at 1312 Utah St., a decrepit, 17-unit Single-Room Occupancy hotel nicknamed “The Pit.” And, a few months after Client-9 was texting with Santos, Paul Pelosi, Jr. was walking into DBI headquarters and representing himself as an individual working on behalf of the owners of the property.  

Pelosi, the son of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, didn’t return our calls. He hasn’t been spotted recently at the Department of Building Inspection.

But, one day after his indictment, Santos was. He also showed up at DBI in July, after he was federally indicted on bank fraud and identity theft charges for allegedly depositing more than three quarters of a million dollars of his clients’ money into his own bank account. He just couldn’t stay away. 

If the Department of Building Inspection is the Overlook Hotel, a place that definitely had permitting issues, then Santos is its Jack Torrance. He’s always been here. And, until he’s somehow frozen out of the premises, it appears he’ll always be here.

Rat droppings, wood flakes and soiled clothes are strewn about this room at “The Pit,” an SRO at 1312 Utah St. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez, 2019.

Because this is San Francisco, Santos served on the Department of Building Inspection’s oversight committee from 2000 to 2005; he was even its president for four years (in this town, to borrow a line from my writing partner Benjamin Wachs, the fox doesn’t just watch the henhouse, he opens a KFC franchise). 

After leaving that commission, Santos cut a swath through the department he once “oversaw.” At any given time, the informal citywide list of “projects that have gone to shit” scrawled on a dry-erase board in a DBI higher-up’s office, might be composed of a plurality, or even a majority, of Santos jobs. The additional man hours put in by DBI workers to deal with his issues might be measured in years. 

And yet, far from the procedural equivalent of being put in the stocks as an example to wayward and deceitful building professionals, Santos was continually let off the hook. The Department of Building Inspection didn’t just clean up Santos’ many messes, it abetted in perpetuating them. 

That’s no longer the case, however. Not with Santos now being charged by both the City Attorney and Department of Justice, and not after the exodus of high-level Santos allies from the Department of Building Inspection following the January, 2020, arrest of ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru.

The Department of Building Inspection is now actively working to rid itself of the embarrassing spectacle of Santos sauntering through its doors daily and serving as the living embodiment of its bad old days.  

But, karma being what it is, it can’t. 

In this image from an FBI affidavit, Rodrigo Santos is accused of altering a check written to “DBI” to read “RoDBIgo Santos.” It was allegedly deposited in his Bank of America personal account.

With ousted PUC boss and accused federal criminal Harlan Kelly having graduated in engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and accused federal criminal Santos being a Stanford engineer, these are the times that try Bay Area alums’ souls.

Despite that Stanford pedigree, Santos is the one accused of the junior-high Goofus-level crime of altering a check made out to “DBI” to read “RoDBIgo Santos.”      

That check was penned in 2018, and this matter was widely made public in 2020 via the city attorney’s charges of permit forgery and check fraud, which were later piggybacked by the feds. But, 11 months prior to that, in April, 2019, DBI personnel were explicitly told to cease accepting checks made out to “DBI” and insist upon “CCSF-DBI.”  

This certainly prevented mix-ups with DBI Beverages, but, clearly, that’s not all. Per the department, “once it became known that checks were being modified to enable fraud, the policy was changed.” Multiple officials at 49 South Van Ness Ave. say this change was unambiguously tied to Santos. 

If so, that would be typical. If Santos had had the habit of swinging around a baseball bat as he walked through the building here, DBI’s response would’ve been to instruct its workers to wear helmets. Again and again, DBI altered its practices to accommodate Santos’ objectionable acts.

Here’s how that looks: 

A building inspector remembers visiting one of those “projects that’s gone to shit” where Santos was the engineer of record. In this case, the inspector recalls, it was a large, multiple-unit structure, the excavation had undermined the foundation of the neighboring building, and litigation had ensued. But wait, there’s more. 

The inspector couldn’t help but notice that hefty concrete beams in the subterranean garage that were on the plans did not exist in real life; they had ostensibly been eliminated to provide headroom. These “were structural concrete beams. This was pretty serious stuff.”  

But not for Santos. The inspector’s senior pulled him aside and told him that Santos would “put some drawings together and get it approved as a revision.” In other words, far from there being any repercussions for failing to build to the approved plans and omitting structural elements, everything would just be approved post-facto.  

Here’s another way that looks: 

A DBI worker recalls Santos merrily plopping his drawings on the counter to be reviewed. A correction notice was emblazoned on the front page. It turns out there was the matter of an illegal demolition undertaken on the site. But rather than bringing down the wrath of God, a building department higher-up had simply tasked Santos with obtaining approval for a revision to the original plans. Easy-peasy. 

“They worked it out. It was a deal amongst themselves.”

Why this deference? Because Santos was an integral player in the system; he was the lubrication in the machine between the gears of the city’s connected contractors and their DBI allies and enablers. Santos was the man you’d tap to come up with plans that, provably, violated the laws of physics, and he was also the man to get these plans expediently permitted. 

With connections like Santos had, he knew that if anyone at DBI told him no, he could always find someone else to tell him yes. He was the Napoleon of serial permitting: breaking up a huge job into tiny pieces, so nobody understood the totality until it was done. And when he was caught at this — and he not infrequently was — he knew his connections meant there’d be no real consequences.  

He was the indispensable man for both the city’s most influential builders and the DBI higher-ups they put atop the department supposedly regulating them. The system may not have worked for most of us, but it worked for these inside players, and for the people paying Santos to make things work for them, too. 

“Santos was their bread and butter,” says a long-suffering building department employee. “He was their Mr. Fix-it-Up Chappie.” 

In a recent deposition, Rodrigo Santos admitted he hired the children — plural — of former DBI director Tom Hui, seen above. We are informed these are Hui’s only two children and that makes sense; if there were more, Santos probably would’ve hired them, too.

So that was the way things were for a very long time. Until they weren’t. Overt corruption is no longer the order of the day at the Department of Building Inspection, and Santos’ ongoing presence is unwanted and counterproductive for the department’s present leadership on any number of levels. 

But you can’t throw someone out just because they’ve been federally indicted or you don’t like their aftershave. Santos remains a licensed engineer, and does so despite the City Attorney having sent a complaint to the state licensing board (though it remains unclear when this complaint was filed or what the substance of it was — while the federal charges allege crimes like fraud and theft, the City Attorney has accused Santos of dangerous engineering practices undertaken with forged permitting). 

Building professionals told us that the state licensing board often follows up on complaints made against engineers within days. Our questions to the board regarding the matter were declined by executive officer Ric Moore, who noted that “we are unable to disclose any information regarding any pending complaint investigations by our Board, including the identity of any party who filed a complaint.”

Your humble narrator has every reason to believe that the licensing board has gotten the ball rolling on this matter. But its leisurely pacing remains mystifying. 

Multiple DBI officials last year confirmed to Mission Local that, purportedly at the City Attorney’s behest, the building department must now run any plans submitted by Santos through an extra level of “quality control” and get them vouched for by a manager. And yet, Santos’ M.O. has often been to deviate from those plans, rendering this a front-end solution to a back-end problem. 

In 2021, this has been partially addressed. Legislation from Supervisor Hillary Ronen enacted in April has led to the creation of a list of serial bad actors in the construction world — and, guess what? The first entrant on the list, posted on Nov. 18, with four recorded significant violations, is Rodrigo Santos. DBI complaints to the state licensing board may follow.

‘Once it became known that checks were being modified to enable fraud, the policy was changed.’

The consequences here could be severe for Santos. Both the Planning Department and DBI must now subject Santos’ projects to additional scrutiny — a problem for someone whose stock and trade is getting things approved rapidly. 

Additionally, “letters will be sent to everyone associated with an open permit featuring Santos’ name informing them that the application and project is going to receive extra scrutiny due to Santos being placed on the Expanded Compliance Control list.” In other words, Santos’ clients will be getting these unflattering letters, which can’t be good for business. So, for him, this is the legislative equivalent of a glue trap. 

And yet, even if this legislation strangles Santos’ engineering business, and even if the state licensing board revokes his credentials, the Ethics Commission confirms that, assuming he’s free to do so, there’s nothing keeping Santos from dropping by DBI headquarters to work as a permit expediter. 

So, on days ending with a “y,” you may well see him there. In San Francisco, a man accused of dangerous, cavalier work and stealing from his clients remains an attractive option for people hoping to mitigate the travails of the Department of Building Inspection. 

And that’s an indictment of this city. 

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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 editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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10 Comments

  1. DBI’s laissez faire attitude toward expediters like Rodrigo Santos and Walter Wong began with its first and former Director Frank Chiu – the same Frank Chiu who became an expediter himself, soon after he was forced out. Not nearly enough has been made of that fact. Of course, Chiu, a close friend of Wong’s, was put in place by people like Wong and Joe O’Donaghue, former head of the Residential Builders Assoc. (RBA). And they were enabled in that process by O’Donaghue’s 1994 City Charter Amendment that created DBI. As he would later say, “We have a say, an influence. Why wouldn’t we? We created that department.” (S.F. Chron., 7/17/00) Also in ’94, former City Administrator, Rudy Nothenberg, warned the voters that passage of the Amendment would place the Building Department in the hands of special interests. He was dead right.

    Chiu was put in place for the exact same reasons that recently deposed Director Tom Hui was. He was easily manipulated by the powers that be, and Santos and Wong were just two of those, albeit the worst, who used that to their advantage. Santos, in fact, was the most long-winded and enthusiastic of Hui’s supporters at BIC meetings in 2013, when Hui was appointed.

    DBI will not be fixed until that ’94 Charter Amendment is repealed and replaced with new laws that emphasize a professional and competent department, where corruption, favoritism and political influence are not tolerated. That cannot happen soon enough. To members of the Board of Supervisors: PLEASE see that this happens, as soon as possible.

    1. I never realized DBI was such a recent creation. How did the City handle building inspections and permitting before?

  2. This DBI mess and the appointed heads of city department’s have quite a Cabal going on in this city.
    Doubt anything will change except cast of characters.

    1. I ditto that. And many (fortunately not all) local elected officials make a lucrative career at the state level bouncing around from one elected position to another each time they are termed out. Why would local supervisors, who were supposedly passionate about their districts, become passionate about serving as State Treasurer or State Controller? Follow the money, the DCCC insiders rotation, and Mission Local to find out.

  3. For years, DBI and Mayors’ offices made conscious decisions to step in dog sh!t
    Truth: It takes forever to clean your boots.
    Reality: The boots must be tossed out.

  4. At DBI is a fellow that goes by the name of Patrick O’Riordan. He has been directly in charge of the running the Building Inspection Division into the ground for years. Patrick’s direct actions, along with his unprincipled mismanagement of the division, are responsible for concealing YEARS of crimes by Santos, Curran and many, many others. Due to consistently helping out the corrupt City Family, Patrick has recently been placed as interim director of the ENTIRE department – something that has allowed him to further expand his abuse of the system. The only thing he’s been actually successful at, is providing an environment that propitiates all of the worst actors that we keep reading about in Mission Local.
    Anyone following Mission Local can put all the pieces together by now:
    At Mel Murphy’s (former head of the RBA) 3418 26th Street – O’Riordan personally accepted a ‘report’ by the criminal Santos, in lieu of -any- REQUISITE structural building inspections on a large, multi-unit building. O’Riordan then brought disgraced building inspector Bernard Curran onto the project in an attempt to whitewash.
    At Mel Murphy’s (is there a pattern here?!) 125 Crown Terrace – O’Riordan again accepted a Santos ‘report’ in lieu of requiring sufficient temporary shoring of a house literally perched on top of blocks. The building then slid down the hill it was supposed to be on, endangering adjacent properties and human lives in the middle of the night. O’Riordan -again- brought the criminal inspector Curran onto the project, in an attempt to conceal his own unlawful actions.
    At 2207 25th Street, now owned by O’Riordan’s close friend: a connected RBA contractor (pattern? what pattern?!), O’Riordan and Santos again teamed up in a criminal scheme which caused the previous owner to sell his home to get out of problems that were caused by….you guessed it: O’Riordan himself! O’Riordan cited violations of work the previous owner had done, as he got in a little over his head with the demolition portion. But, after forcing the owner to sell in duress as a direct result of O’Riordans citations, his RBA contractor pal was able to skate in, purchase the home at a discount, and proceed to (against SF Building and Planning Laws) rebuild the home to his delight.
    We’ve acquired a great deal of knowledge about the levels of corruption happening at DBI on a daily basis through Joe E./Mission Local’s stellar investigative reporting.
    However, Angus McCarthy, Patrick O’Riordan and the RBA are still fighting to retain control of the department.
    Until these snakes, at -all- management levels are eviscerated, one should shudder to think of what other heinous acts can/will be attributed to O’Riordan and crew at the humiliating, scandal-plagued DBI.

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