The city and former Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards have reached a proposed settlement, rewarding him and partner Rachel Swann $1.8 million over alleged Department of Building Inspection retaliation regarding this project on 22nd Street

The city has reached a proposed $1.8 million settlement with former Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards, who sued the city in 2020, claiming the Department of Building Inspection responded to his complaints about corruption in that department by crippling a project he was co-developing. 

Richards’ suit alleged that DBI retaliated against Richards by revoking nine permits on a project he and partner Rachel Swann were undertaking on 22nd Street; the suit purports the retaliation ensued after Richards publicly criticized DBI’s enabling of contractor John Pollard’s work at 3847-3849 18th St., in which two extra stories were constructed and 880 yards of soil were hauled off without the required permits.

The proposed settlement is slated to be referred by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to its Government Audit & Oversight Committee. 

This potential settlement comes after more than two years of legal wrangling, and follows a settlement conference in December. During that time, the plaintiffs deposed more than a dozen city figures as part of the discovery process. 

“The depositions prove what we had been alleging all along,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Scott Emblidge. “There is a different set of rules for people who were connected in a variety of ways with city insiders.” 

Emblidge confirmed that the depositions in this case have been shared with both the FBI and the San Francisco District Attorney. Additionally, they have been obtained by Mission Local and can be accessed at the bottom of this article. 

Indeed, for both law-enforcement figures and the general public, there is plenty to sift through in the depositions. Perhaps most damningly, then-DBI deputy director Ed Sweeney admitted he illegally gave engineer and permit consultant Rodrigo Santos the plans for Richards’ project on 22nd Street. 

When asked why he would do this, Sweeney admitted he’d broken the rules and responded, “I shouldn’t have.” Santos, at that point, was already embroiled in a fraud suit brought by the City Attorney in 2018. He has since been charged multiple times by the feds

“There is a different set of rules for people who were connected in a variety of ways with city insiders.” 

Attorney Scott Emblidge

Anonymous complaints against Richards’ site were made to DBI following Sweeney’s admittedly improper behavior. The plaintiffs claim that this complaint was made by Santos or one of his associates. 

“Here you have Santos, someone the city is already suing,” Richards told Mission Local. “And he and Sweeney just start working together against a sitting commissioner. Can you imagine that coming up during a trial?”

The depositions, Richards and his lawyer Emblidge continued, revealed an unseemly closeness between DBI officials and known bad actors. Santos, in a deposition, revealed he had hired not one but both of former DBI director Tom Hui’s children. Sweeney revealed that his son had been hired by Pollard. 

Asked for comment, City Attorney spokeswoman Jen Kwart replied, “We believe the proposed settlement is an appropriate resolution, given the inherent costs of continued litigation.”

Added DBI spokesman Patrick Hannan: “The settlement resolves a long-simmering legal dispute and allows us to continue to focus on reforming the Department of Building Inspection. We are committed to providing fair and appropriate oversight of all construction in San Francisco, and are putting measures in place to ensure that every permit applicant receives the same level of oversight.”

Richards’ suit alleged widespread corruption within the Department of Building Inspection — and, between its February, 2020, filing date and the present, the city has been inundated by a federal corruption probe, and the upper echelon of its building department has been hollowed out by early retirements. 

But much of the attention at the time of its filing was consumed by the revelation that Richards, long the most stalwart anti-buyout voice on the Planning Commission, had bought out several tenants. 

“Never would I have touched a building with tenants, ever. But when the tenants said they wanted to get bought out in the disclosure, I thought it was okay; I’m not instigating the buyout,” he said. Richards bought out tenants in four units of the 1899 Italianate manse, respectively, for $25,000, $75,000, $75,000 and $175,000.

Commissioner Dennis Richards, who resigned from the Planning Commission on March 4, 2020. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

“I thought it’d be a big win for everyone. But it was turned against me and became a big egg on my face.” 

Pending approval of the settlement, Richards and Swann will be compensated, with several hundred thousand dollars going to legal fees, but the plaintiffs say problems persist within the city’s building department. 

“In my mind, while this was a lawsuit against the city, it was also a lawsuit that can help the city clean up corruption,” said Emblidge. “We were able, through the discovery process available to us, to take depositions which the DA and even the FBI didn’t have the opportunity to do. It will provide them with information and, our hope, is they’ll be able to use it to clean house.” 

Added Richards, I said during the Board of Appeals hearing that the DBI is a cancer on this city. And now, they’ve cut a few cells out. But my fear is, if they don’t take the next steps, change the organizations, clean up the building code and get rid of the corrupt cronies, they’ll continue to use the building code as a weapon against people who speak out.

All of the depositions released so far are linked on this page. Click the names below to jump to their files, and click the images or download links to access the PDFs.

Angus McCarthy | Bernie Curran | Christopher Schroeder | Darryl Honda | Donal Duffy | Edward Sweeney | Gary Ho | John Pollard | Joseph Duffy | Kirsten Urrutia | Matthew Greene | Mauricio Hernandez | Patrick O’Riordan | Rodrigo Santos | William Walsh


Angus McCarthy


Bernie Curran


Christopher Schroeder


Darryl Honda


Donal Duffy


Edward Sweeney


Gary Ho


John Pollard


Joseph Duffy


Kirsten Urrutia


Matthew Greene


Mauricio Hernandez


Patrick O’Riordan


Rodrigo Santos


William Walsh

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Managing Editor/Columnist. 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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  1. This mess is illustrative of how government regulation in general is a scam that does more harm than good. Things like waste, corruption, favoritism, co-option by special interests, and abuse are the rule, not the exception.

    People typically believe that without such regulations we would be unsafe, but if more of the public knew how spotty, inconsistent, and ineffective much of the regulation actually was, they might have a different take on it.

  2. The commenters above miss the point. It is my understanding that Richards and Swann the broke the law when they did not file the paperwork for the buyouts that occured. Sitting on the Planning Commission he absolutely knew this was a requirement. Additionally, they did not obtain proper permits for the work done on the property.

    Richards, in his position, should have known better or should have, at least, hired competent people to produce drawings which accurately described the work. After the fact, when he was caught, this was required to be done retro-actively.

    Why the taxpayers of the city should provide him and his agent accomplice 1.8 million dollars is unfathomable. Was he given extra scrutiny? I am sure he was. The fact that he was looked at more carefully, does change that the work exceeded the scope of the permits. The reality is that Richards and Swann were ultimately responsible, same as every other homeowner, to provide proper permits for the work. He is not some novice making innocent mistakes.

    Certainly I hope the Board of Supervisors do not approve this outrageous give-away to some unscrupulous real estate speculators.

  3. I recently got poisoned with natural gas emissions from my heater inside my apartment. DBI, knew about the heater issue back in 2020, and so did Mr. Campesino, of Clear Homes, LLC. Due to negligence, I was breathing carbon monoxide gas for months, I could have died. At times, I was unable to breathe, and had serious nausea. Currently, the gas leak from the heater inside the apartment, has not been confirmed to have been repaired,. although, PGE connected the gas to the apartment last Friday.
    It’s been really hard, dealing with all of the things that have left this building at risk of a fire 🔥. The fire department came, and did not note that the building is devoid of fire enforcement standards. I can go, on and on, about all the ways people neglected this building, and in turn, the block. It saddens me, people that are supposed to keep others safe, don’t take it seriously (web is still under construction).
    Does, anyone know of a good attorney, injury, or landlord tenant? Can anyone refer me to a doctor that specializes in Carbon Monoxide Long-term Poisoning. Is there a person out there familiar with DBI codes? If so,
    Please help me, review DBI policies regarding heaters, so that we can suggest changes. In an effort, to prevent, that another person, get exposed to the highly toxic gas. I hope, that another poor, vulnerable, and ignorant woman, such as myself, doesn’t get poisoned, or killed. CREEPY!!! Like I did. Also, let me know if anyone out there is interested in looking, to help save six affordable apartments, filled with Raza. We are all b being dislocated, thus increasing our risk, and funneling towards homelessness. Email : ardgallm@gmail.com

  4. I cannot believe that they are letting O’Riordan lead the department. I mean, I can believe it because corruption in SF government is terrible, but still.

  5. The City Attorney’s Jan. 18 Memorandum on DBI and Chief Building Inspector, Patrick O’Riordan, is admittedly very thorough and professional and well worth reading. It looks like the product of Head Attorney for Public Integrity, Keslie Stewart, and not that of new C.A., David Chiu. It does appear to exonerate O’Riordan of ethics violations during the 2009 – 2012 period and in general. However, that report is only about whether he was involved in any corruption at DBI, and not about whether he would be a good choice for the DBI Director’s position.

    It looks like he did try to hold the line against the corruption of others, and for those actions he should be commended. But there are still nagging questions about the charges made against him by Inspector Chris Schroeder and others. (Joe has made a good case for this.) How, for example, could an entire 5-story building be constructed illegally in 2012, including excavation, concrete, and framing without O’Riordan, the Senior Inspector then for that area, knowing about it? There was a Site Permit for the project, but that doesn’t allow any construction. (A Site Permit is mainly for obtaining Planning Dept. approval, and the developer and former Building Inspection Commission (BIC) President, Mel Murphy, had to know this perfectly well.) The Senior Inspector not knowing about the construction defies credibility. Also, how could he stand by and witness Tom Hui’s and Bernie Curran’s corruption for 7 years before reporting it to the City Attorney (C. A.)? Has he only changed his stripes when it benefited himself? Consequently, it remains to be seen whether O’Riordan can be committed to change at DBI now, when he’s spent so many years working in and accommodating a system that has been so corrupt.

    Permit cheater, scofflaw, multi-millionaire developer, and current BIC President, Angus McCarthy, has now pushed through the appointment of O’Riordan as Director, just as he did that of the corrupt Tom Hui 10 years earlier. No surprise that O’Riordan is a former contractor and fellow Irishman of McCarthy. He’s also an employee whose rise at DBI was no doubt greased by his Irish-American (I-A) builder connections and I-A control of DBI’s Inspection Division. It’s as if Tammany Hall in NYC has been resurrected in S.F. And like Tammany Hall, McCarthy has been active in aiding undocumented Irish immigrants to S.F., as well as promoting the I-As like himself to positions at DBI.

    https://beyondchron.org/angus-mccarthy-immigrant-activist-and-builder-appointed-to-dbi-commission/

    The fact is that McCarthy and O’Riordan, along with Hui and former DBI Dep. Directors Ed Sweeney and Dan Lowery, have invited the C.A.’s scrutiny by the way they have run DBI for years. Regrettably, all of this could have been halted years ago, if the District and City Attorney’s Offices had paid attention to complaints from Grand Juries and numerous informers. Instead, they sat on it all, until 2019. Thank heavens that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had the good sense to step in.

    O’Riordan is another favorite of the I-A contractors’ Residential Builders Assoc. (RBA), and his appointment completes an almost total takeover by them of DBI’s top management and Inspection Div. According to the C.A.’s Memorandum, McCarthy even sits to this day on the Board of the RBA. (Not to disparage the I-A in general – I know of many respectable and admirable people who are Irish-American – but the RBA and their former President, Joe O’Donaghue, are reprehensible and largely responsible for the mess that DBI has become.) And who in their right mind believes that O’Riordan is not beholden to McCarthy and the RBA? Who believes that he will now rid DBI of all the relatives and friends who were unethically hired under the previous management? It would be a stroke of pure luck, if it turned out that he was truly a man of integrity.

    He is joined by Joe Duffy, another I-A and newly appointed Deputy Director of Inspection Services, and 4 out of 5 current Senior Inspectors in the Inspection and Code Enforcement Divisions, all of whom are I-A – Sean Birmingham, Kevin McHugh, Matt Greene, and John Hinchion.

    See: https://sfdbi.org/sites/default/files/DBI%20Org%20Chart.pdf

    Bernie Curran, yet another I-A Senior Inspector until recently, was forced out of the Dept. because of bribery and corruption. Before then, he was the darling of every past and present DBI-connected crook. (McCarthy, himself, called Curran “wonderful” in a conversation of his with former BIC Commissioner Debra Walker, as quoted in the C.A.’s report.) And who was responsible for getting Curran promoted to a senior position in 2013? Was that Lowery’s doing or Hui’s? We’ll probably never know, since it’s clear that DBI management has for many years been able to go into the Permit Tracking System and delete or change entries. Did the C.A. consider that many records may have been sanitized by managers who were covering their own tracks?

    O’Riordan rose through the ranks via the same path that these Senior Inspectors did, as well as Sweeney and Lowery. (They, too, are I-As, who were forced out in 2020 for malfeasance.) This path begins with the hiring of management favorites, either with unethical temporary hiring or by way of hiring and promotion tests that are written and administered by corrupt DBI managers. And this same favoritism continues all the way to the top. (At the same time, there is no reason, whatsoever, to think that there are not other, non-I-A applicants and inspectors who have equal or better qualifications.) Currently, the Chief Building Inspector position is vacant, because of O’Riordan’s appointment, but you can be sure that, too, will soon be filled by one of the current I-A Senior Inspectors. None of them, including McCarthy and O’Riordan, possesses any college degree or college certificate required by most other Building Depts.

    Furthermore, how is it possible that a city such as S.F., with its numerous high-rise buildings and other large projects, plus a major earthquake fault that runs through it, does not have a Building Dept. that is run by a structural engineer?!!! Former small contractor, Patrick O’Riordan, no matter how honest he may turn out to be, and Angus McCarthy, former bar manager and current wealthy developer, are not the persons to be calling the shots for construction code compliance and creation in S.F. The rest of the educated world must see S.F. as a joke! Anyone who thinks this is a sophisticated and savvy city should have their head examined. It is, instead, a city that is used and abused repeatedly by a broadly diverse cast of crooks, and has only been forced to face that fact lately by the FBI. Meanwhile, the RBA must be salivating at their success. Joe O’Donoghue, former RBA President and creator of the current DBI that was foisted on gullible voters in 1994, is no doubt celebrating with glee. Their next annual golf tournament will, no doubt, be a major scene of celebration for them and their allies at DBI and City government.

    O’Riordan’s appointment is business as usual at DBI, and could probably have been prevented by the City Attorney’s Office, the Board of Supervisors, and/or the Mayor, by removing or restricting McCarthy from the appointment process. Shame on the other BIC Commissioners, too, for allowing themselves to be arm-twisted into this appointment. It’s no excuse that these novices know nothing about how to run a Building Dept; there was plenty of opportunity for them to read about the malfeasance at DBI in the media, etc. Sadly, the appointment was rushed thru with numerous, closed-door meetings in quick succession, right before the C.A.’s Jan. 18 report could be disseminated and its contents known. Now, it won’t even be necessary for McCarthy to beat a path to O’Riordan’s door, as he did to Hui’s. He can just send his plans with one of his runners. And Sean Keighran, current President of the RBA, can put both McCarthy and O’Riordan on speed dial. Why waste his time passing his revised DBI documents back and forth to McCarthy?

    It should also be noted that the Plan Check and Permit Services divisions at DBI are the product of another takeover – this one staged by the corrupt Asian-American triumvirate of Tom Hui, former DBI Director Frank Chu (1994 – 2004), and Walter Wong, notorious, corrupt expediter, criminal mastermind, and close friend of Hui and Chu. (Some would include former Mayor Ed Lee in this group.) It’s too bad that the C.A report did not include a close look at the many years of corruption by this group and others in the Permit Services Div., which includes Plan Check. Maybe the C.A.’s Office can perform an encore? A large majority of employees at the Permit Services Div., are now Asian-Americans, many of them relatives or friends or relatives of friends of Hui and Wong, who were hired originally as “temporary hires” with the help of Hui and Wong. (Here too, I am not disparaging Asian-Americans in general. There are many fine people of Asian descent. Unfortunately, though, most large groups of people have some individuals with little integrity, who will gravitate to any opportunity where there is easy money and influence to be gained.) And, if anyone doubts how close Chu’s relationship with Wong was, Chu became the manager of Wong’s Jaidan Consulting Group, after being forced out of DBI by Mayor Newsom. His Linked-in account, however, has been scrubbed clean of most of that information:

    https://www.linkedin.com/in/frank-chu-73b759180/

    At Jaidan Consulting, Chu joined several other former DBI plan checkers, who were also former Wong accomplices at DBI.

    The main hope now for supporters of a competent, professional, and ethical DBI is the proposed Charter Amendment being considered by the Board of Supervisors. This amendment, if passed by the voters in July, will abolish the Building Inspection Commission as it now exists and replace it with a Commission that is directly accountable to the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor. Not only will McCarthy be gone, but the new Commission may choose to replace O’Riordan as well.

    In addition, as this observer sees it, San Francisco would be much better served by a very centralized, City Manager type government, similar to San Jose’s, rather than the Strong Mayor type it has now. This City Manager would need to be a highly qualified and experienced professional. In contrast, the “City Administrator” that S.F. has now is only responsible for the management of a few, less-important departments, and not DBI ☹. See:

    https://icma.org/sites/default/files/302618_Council-Manager%20or%20Strong%20Mayor%20-%20The%20Choice%20is%20Clear.pdf