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.
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.
“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