"Rodbigo" Santos: A check to Ahsha Safaí
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.

Rodrigo Santos, an engineer, permit expediter and the former president of the San Francisco Building Inspection Commission, today pleaded guilty to a total of 17 federal counts, each carrying a statutory maximum sentence between five and 30 years.

The charges include 10 counts of bank fraud, one count of honest services wire fraud, one count of falsifying records in a federal investigation initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and five counts of tax evasion involving more than $1.6 million in unreported income. 

Santos, 64, who was originally charged in a federal complaint on May 11, 2020, was promoted by former Mayor Gavin Newsom to chair of the Department of Building Inspection’s oversight commission in 2004. He is the co-founder of San Francisco-based company Santos and Urrutia Structural Engineers. He was also appointed to the City College commission in 2012 by then-Mayor Ed Lee. 

The 10 counts of bank fraud involve the theft of some $775,000 from Santos’ own clients. From 2012 through 2019, Santos solicited checks from his clients, convincing them that the money would be used to pay for their building projects, but instead deposited them into his personal bank account. According to his plea agreement, he did this by altering the “pay to the order of” section of the checks, or by signing the back of the checks on behalf of the payee. Memorably, in at least one instance, he altered a check reading “DBI” to read “RoDBIgo Santos.”

Santos admitted that, from 2012 through 2019, he obtained more than $800,000 of his clients’ money by depositing around 445 client checks into his personal account. In addition, from 2012 through 2018, he caused his company more than $718,000 in losses by depositing around 378 checks written as “pay to the order” of his engineering firm into personal account. 

The honest services wire fraud covers Santos influencing Bernie Curran, a senior building inspector at the Department of Building Inspection. Santos arranged for his clients to make charitable donations to a local non-profit athletic organization that Curran favored. From 2017 to 2020, 13 of Santos’ clients donated a total of $9,600 to the organization. In response, they all received official action from Curran as a senior building inspector. In some cases, Curran approved faulty or nonexistent work. 

In Santos’ plea agreement, he also admitted that he sent falsified invoices to the FBI for the purpose of obstructing its investigation. 

The tax evasion involves more than $1.6 million that Santos deposited into his personal account from 2012 through 2019. He intentionally omitted the money on his tax returns, resulting in a tax avoidance of more than $564,000.

Santos agreed to pay more than $1 million in restitution as part of his guilty plea. 

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston scheduled a sentencing hearing for Santos on June 23. He will remain out of custody until then. 

The prosecution is the result of a joint investigation by the FBI and IRS. The case is being prosecuted by the Special Prosecutions Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. 

The case is a part of a larger federal investigation into corruption in San Francisco. So far, 12 people have been charged, including former San Francisco Public Works director Mohammed Nuru, who was sentenced to seven years in prison.

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. The system in SF is set up to incentivize corruption.

    If you want to build homes for people, you should be able to follow clear city-provided rules that ensure safety and quality and minimize disruption to neighbors. If you follow the rules, you should be able to get working within a few months at worst.

    But the system doesn’t work that way. Instead it is set up to place countless hurdles every step of the way, and every one of them is another opportunity for corruption. DBI? Bribe now or wait for years. CEQA? The only green that matters is money. Public input? Community group leaders need to get paid. Supervisor approval? What do you think.

    If you don’t want to handle each of those yourself, you pay off someone like Santos to “streamline” the process.

    If we don’t want all this corruption, we need to get rid of the current system and establish a transparent, by-right process for building.

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  2. I’m always surprised that the left wing radicals who favor letting murderers and illegal immigrant drug dealers out on bail have such a visceral hatred for greedy people that commit non violent crimes. He’s a scumbag and deserves to go to jail but as Bill Murray said “ Lighten up Francis “

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    1. Michael — 

      Sgt. Hulka said that — not Bill Murray’s character. You seem confused.

      Bill Murray *did* ostensibly say: “It’s hard to win an argument with a smart person. It’s damn near impossible to win an argument with a stupid person.”

      Have a nice rest of the day,


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  3. I hope people will write letters to the judge and urge her to throw the book at Santos on sentencing. He should spend the rest of his life in prison, not be out in three years to start doing it all again. This guy committed hundreds of serious financial crimes, he doesn’t know how to do anything else.

    The only thing that will discourage the next generation of “Rodbigos” from doing the exact same thing, is to see him get a serious sentence that will dissuade his would-be proteges.

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