Following its fifth meeting this month, the Department of Building Inspection’s oversight commission on Jan. 21 selected interim director Patrick O’Riordan as the next full-time director of the department.
Once again, a “national search” for a San Francisco department head has turned up someone who was already in the building. San Francisco may not peg itself as resembling Kansas — but, like Dorothy Gayle, when it comes to looking for its heart’s desire, this city often never looks further than its own backyard.
Friday’s appointment came after three hours of closed session in the fourth special meeting this month for the DBI oversight commission, and on the heels of a City Attorney report finding no evidence of wrongdoing from O’Riordan on several highlighted projects.
That investigation was spurred by a pair of Mission Local articles from October. The City Attorney concluded in the report released last week that veteran inspectors Norman Gutierrez and Christopher Schroeder, who told Mission Local that O’Riordan kept them off projects to appease connected builders, are not credible. The report surmises that they are fabricating these stories out of spite because O’Riordan suspended them, in 2013 and April, 2021, respectively.
You’re not going to believe this, but we find flaws in the City Attorney’s report. We find flaws in the personnel who were interviewed, a number of whom are architects and beneficiaries of the department’s problematic status quo. We find flaws in the conclusions drawn and the points emphasized. Finally, we question the purpose of a report that doesn’t merely mitigate complaints made against O’Riordan, but elevates him in prose reminiscent of Enrique Pearce canonizing Ed Lee.
To start with, there is quite a gap between an employee being rankled at a boss over discipline issues and an employee making knowingly false accusations about his boss, on the record, in newspaper articles and during interviews with City Attorney personnel.
The notion that both inspectors would independently decide to craft malicious lies to a reporter in on-the-record interviews and, in Schroeder’s case, to City Attorney personnel, strikes me as a stretch. The assertion that these inspectors’ disciplinary incidents is, in and of itself, disqualifying — and that, in and of itself, it led them to fabricate elaborate and public lies — strikes me as extremely thin.
But the only rationale offered by the City Attorney for Gutierrez and Schroeder’s alleged fabulizing is rancor over those suspensions.
The City Attorney’s report portrays Gutierrez’s decision to not participate in the investigation, and Schroeder only being interviewed after being mandated to do so, in a sinister light. Perhaps. But had Schroeder been eager to slag his boss, he shouldn’t have needed to be prodded.
As for Gutierrez, he declined to be interviewed, fearing that the City Attorney’s M.O. of protecting the city might translate into protecting O’Riordan.
The City Attorney repeatedly states that Schroeder’s purported animus against O’Riordan stems from his April, 2021, suspension. The report lists no other potential motive for Schroeder’s alleged dishonesty. But Mission Local found written evidence of Schroeder making allegations that O’Riordan showed connected builders preferential treatment — in February, 2021. That’s two months before the suspension that the City Attorney offers as the sole reason for Schroeder concocting an on-the-record cock-and-bull story.
He made these earlier allegations in a sworn deposition for the Dennis Richards lawsuit vs. the city. In that Feb. 12 deposition, Schroeder used the acronym “FIPO” to describe “File Placed in O’Riordan’s Office.”
“Then it’s returned down there to [senior inspector] Kevin McHugh, as you can see, and this is one of those called fipos (phonetic), file placed in O’Riordan’s Office, and then McHugh abates the case,” reads the transcript of Schroeder analyzing a file.
“What’s the significance of the file being placed in Patrick O’Riordan’s office?” asked Richards’ attorney, Scott Emblidge.
“Typically that’s the limbo place where connected people have their files placed, sometimes for years,” Schroeder responded. “I have seen it up to 10 years for the connected people.”
“If you were a connected person, why would you want to be in limbo for 10 years?” Emblidge asked.
“Because no abatement action or order of abatement would be issued,” Schroeder replied, “and it puts the brakes on code-enforcement action.”
Schroeder also discussed the project at 3418 26th St., which was the subject of Mission Local’s original story. To be clear, he did not explicitly state in this deposition — as he did to Mission Local — that he, in 2012, repeatedly informed O’Riordan of the unpermitted construction of a five-story structure by Mel Murphy, one of the city’s most connected builders and the former president of DBI’s oversight commission.
Rather, Schroeder downplays his involvement and merely says “it was reported to the interim director who was my senior at the time.”
But, from there, Schroeder in February, 2021, made some of the same complaints about the subsequent handling of the situation that he did in October, 2021, to Mission Local.
In his February sworn deposition, Schroeder bemoaned DBI’s hands-off treatment of the 26th Street project after its belated intervention, its overreliance on dodgy special inspection reports and dodgy project engineer Rodrigo Santos.
That’s along the lines of his complaints to Mission Local in October: In lieu of actual DBI inspections on the foundation and other critical elements at the 26th Street project, DBI relied on an engineering report from Santos, now an accused federal criminal several times over whom the City Attorney has additionally charged with permit forgery and dangerous, cavalier excavation work.
The recent City Attorney’s report investigating the allegations against O’Riordan in 2021 never addresses this. It never addresses what to make of the fact that there are no recorded DBI foundation inspections on site, or that the special inspections a DBI higher-up signed off on in March, 2013, weren’t recorded as complete until July, 2013. The Department of Building Inspection could have insisted on thorough and intrusive testing — jackhammering out concrete and bringing in ground-penetrating radar. But it didn’t.
The City Attorney’s report also doesn’t address why Matt Greene and Bernie Curran were the subsequent inspectors on this site. This is relevant, as, by cross-referencing a previously confidential 2014 city report the City Attorney released last week and 2021 depositions in Richards’ lawsuit, it appears that Greene was Murphy’s handpicked, preferred inspector. And Curran has since been run out of the department and hit with federal bribery charges, in tandem with Santos.
Finally, the City Attorney claims Schroeder contradicted himself in his 2021 claims, compared to a 2014 interview. Some seven years prior, he told the City Attorney, among other things, “I was never out there.” This is a matter of semantics; Schroeder clearly has been in the vicinity of Mission and 26th, but he never performed an inspection on this building.
But Schroeder is, undeniably, prevaricating. Why do this? We are only privy to the portions of the interviews the City Attorney has chosen to highlight. And the Department of Building Inspection refused to allow Schroeder to speak a second time with Mission Local.
But, when confronted with this apparent contradiction by the City Attorney in 2021, the report states that Schroeder responded, “As I said before, because what I was told was that they wanted me to lie. O’Riordan and Dan Lowery wanted me to say that they tried to call me four times.”
He then goes on to use cryptic and defensive language, eventually stating that his memory is better now.
The City Attorney sees this as evidence that Schroeder is fabricating this story. But that’s not the only way to see it.
The jarring claim about being asked to lie by his superiors is never addressed, even though Schroeder’s excerpted quote states “as I told you before.” Clearly this issue was discussed, but the general public isn’t being told why it’s not worth examining.
Because if Schroeder’s superiors asked him to be less than truthful many years ago, it would go a long way toward explaining why he dodged discussing the 26th Street project in 2014. It’s a significant risk to tell the authorities that your bosses, plural, have engaged in wrongdoing and enlisted you in a cover story. A worker making such accusations could find himself subject to retaliation and transfer out of the division, especially if the City Attorney chose to side with management rather than a front-line worker.
Going over DBI organizational charts and based upon Schroeder’s own statements in the February sworn deposition in the Richards case, it’s clear that, in the intervening years, he’s been transferred through the department repeatedly. By the time of our October, 2021, interview, he told me that, after many years in the field, he’d been transferred to code enforcement, and then transferred again to technical services. He described himself as “the phone guy.”
Freedom, as Kris Kristofferson could tell you, is just another word for nothing left to lose. Perhaps Schroeder’s memory has improved, as he abstrusely stated, because he is no longer concerned about events that have already come to pass.
That seems at least as plausible as claiming that he and Gutierrez independently conspired to tell vast and flagrant on-the-record lies.
Incidentally, in his own deposition in the Richards case, O’Riordan said that Schroeder lacked patience, didn’t have a knack for customer service and could behave poorly. But he also described Schroeder as “even-handed,” someone who never “showed favoritism” and is “honest.”
The overwhelming majority of the page count for the exhibits attached to the City Attorney’s investigation of Patrick O’Riordan — something like 90 percent — has little to nothing to do with Patrick O’Riordan. The materials deal in large part with former director Tom Hui, who was pushed out of the department in March, 2020, at legal bayonet-point after the City Attorney uncovered written evidence of longstanding nepotism, cronyism and corruption.
The City Attorney has done great work uncovering wrongdoing by Hui, Curran and others. And, since 2019, O’Riordan has been helping them with that. After only seven years of directly supervising Curran, in 2019 O’Riordan went to the City Attorney with “suspicions,” as the report puts it.
So it was hard to miss the theme in the City Attorney’s report that DBI was a cesspool of corruption for the past decade, and the people Hui elevated were deeply compromised, with one notable exception: The guy who’s cooperating with the City Attorney when they sew up his longtime former colleagues. It was hard to miss how malfeasance and wrongdoing was heaped on everyone who’s no longer in the picture.
The City Attorney didn’t say that Hui’s last word when he scurried out of DBI headquarters was “rosebud.” But it felt that way.
But not everybody is no longer in the picture: Angus McCarthy has been the president of the DBI’s oversight committee since 2012, notable continuity in leadership throughout this terrible decade for the department. Mission Local earlier wrote about a bevy of permit irregularities on his properties, spurring a separate City Attorney investigation.
McCarthy did not come off well in the most recent City Attorney report. As Mission Local reported, he has an admitted habit of sending internal DBI materials to Sean Keighran, the president of the influential Residential Builders Association. Last week’s report documented more of that.
Keighran is McCarthy’s close friend and, evidently, a talented editor. That’s for the good. But, like McCarthy, he’s also a member of the Residential Builders Association, an organization that the Department of Building Inspection ostensibly exists to regulate.
The City Attorney’s report this month documented that McCarthy emailed Keighran a draft Department of Building Inspection document regarding Mel Murphy’s home sliding down Twin Peaks in 2013. McCarthy and Keighran workshopped this DBI document to place more blame on Murphy.
Now, Murphy deserved this. But the City Attorney did not delve into the more overarching and troubling context here. Murphy was, at the time, the Residential Builders Association’s arch-rival. McCarthy and Keighran were, in effect, weaponizing the Department of Building Inspection to target a political foe.
Murphy, again, had it coming. But it’s troubling that a group that should be regulated by DBI is, instead, wheeling the guns on DBI’s deck to blast an opponent. Other targets may be less deserving of a cannonade than Murphy. Essentially, this is what happened to Dennis Richards.
The City Attorney’s report additionally revealed that, in 2014, McCarthy was one of very few people given a then-confidential city report outlining the corruption and malfeasance in the department — and, specifically, the shortcomings of Tom Hui. Nothing was done to address the report’s findings. Six years later, Hui was frog-marched out of city employment.
McCarthy was also deposed in the Richards case. When asked in September, 2021, if he had any misgivings about Hui, he responded: “Based on what I am reading now, and what I am finding out about now, I am still going to hold judgment on that until I read the report fully.”
McCarthy, is, again, the president of the body tasked with overseeing the DBI, and has been for a decade. And, nearly eight years ago, he was one of just a handful of individuals given access to a report spelling out Hui’s penchant for favoritism. If cleaning up the department was McCarthy’s aim, he’s had many years to lift a finger.
So, it’s unfortunate that, in 2022, McCarthy was the president of the commission that has selected the next director. It’s even more unfortunate considering that a quartet of San Francisco supervisors have put an anti-corruption measure on the June ballot that would fundamentally remake the DBI commission tasked with overseeing the department and choosing its leadership.
“Gone will be the days of behind-closed-door appointments like Mel Murphy and Rodrigo Santos and the crooks that have run that commission,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin told us in December.
But, on Jan. 21, that commission made its move regardless. The die is cast. It remains to be seen if, as The Who put it, the new boss is the same as the old boss. In more ways than one.