Engineer Rodrigo Santos, who has pleaded guilty to more than a dozen federal charges, ran his business out of this backyard structure — which the Planning Department contends is unwarranted and was remodeled without permitting. Photo courtesy of the Planning Department.

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In a jarringly on-the-nose development, Rodrigo Santos — the confessed federal criminal who flouted San Francisco codes and laws for decades as an engineer and permit expediter — is now accused of running his unlawful business out of an unpermitted building. 

“The violation pertains to the construction and use of a new detached structure in the required rear yard … without the benefit of [a] building permit and approval from the Planning Department,” reads a Notice of Enforcement sent by the Planning Department earlier this month to the Santos family home on Chattanooga Street. 

“According to the violation complaint, a commercial business dba RS Engineering is being operated from the above property.” 

The complaint originated in October 2022. On the last day of that month, Santos’ wife told the Planning Department “that the building at the back of the house was being used as a home office.” Yes, without permitting or any other city permissions. 

It’s yet another twist in the strange and terrible saga of Rodrigo Santos, who pleaded guilty in January to 17 federal counts, including falsifying records in an FBI investigation, five counts of tax evasion involving more than $1.6 million in unreported income, and 10 counts of bank fraud. These bank fraud charges involve the pilfering of some $775,000 of clients’ money in dribs and drabs as he transferred checks they wrote to others into his own Bank of America account. In one circumstance, he altered a $1,314.50 check to “DBI” to read “RoDBIgo Santos.”

On Friday, former senior building inspector Bernie Curran was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison, in part because of his participation in a bribery scheme with Santos. Curran signed off on substandard work at the properties of Santos’ clients in exchange for contributions to Curran’s preferred youth sports nonprofits. Santos’ own federal sentencing is slated for next month.

Santos is also facing scrutiny on the local level, where he was initially sued by the City Attorney in 2018, well prior to federal charges being leveled. These local charges are potentially even more problematic than the federal charges, as they allege dangerous and substandard building practices. In addition to check fraud, the City Attorney accused Santos of misrepresenting major constructions and excavations as minor work — and using out-and-out forged engineering seals and signatures to pull this off. 

Santos, facing a pending federal sentencing — with a potential of five to 30 years in the pen for every count but, likely, far less time — may have more pressing matters on his mind than that of an unwarranted backyard office. The Planning Department notices are addressed to a revocable trust in his wife’s name, and correspondences have been handled by Virginia Santos.


Virginia Santos, in June, responded to the Planning Department and said she believed the structure to have been a “shed” erected in the 1930s and “restored” in the 1990s. The City Assessor’s office confirmed to Mission Local, however, that Virginia and Rodrigo Santos purchased this home in January, 1989. Photographs of the structure in question provided by the Planning Department indicate it is certainly no longer a “shed.” 

Last month, the Planning Department informed Virginia Santos “that once a noncomplying structure has been demolished, it cannot be rebuilt without first obtaining proper permits and approval from the Planning Department in conformity with the current code. … no such permit was obtained.” 

Virginia Santos was, last month, advised to submit a permit application, as well as a request for a variance — an exception from the planning code for this non-complying structure. On July 6, a Notice of Enforcement was sent to the property, outlining a series of in-person meetings, document submittals and fees to be paid. 

"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 subsequently deposited in his Bank of America personal account.

Despite his mounting troubles, Santos — for years — remained very much in demand. The former president of the Building Inspection Commission continued to be a near-daily presence at DBI headquarters at 49 South Van Ness Ave., even after being sued in both local and federal court and even after the Department of Building Inspection created an “Expanded Compliance Control List” and put him on it. This program, which scrutinizes serial bad actors and sends notices to their clientele, was created to ensnare Rodrigo Santos and, presently, features a single member: Rodrigo Santos. 

Notices on windows at DBI headquarters kindly inform patrons to make out their checks to “CCSF-DBI.” This, too, is due to Santos

And yet, after all that, Santos continues to get work; he is presently attached to an “alteration and rear addition” at 1153-55 Guerrero St. and a variance application at 532-534 Shotwell St. 

The Planning Department affirms that Santos is in compliance with the 15-day deadline for a response to its July 6 Notice of Enforcement. The matter will continue on, for the time being. 

For no stated reason, an agenda item regarding the revocation of Rodrigo Santos’ engineering license with the Office of Administrative Hearings was abruptly taken off the calendar on July 11.

A manager at that body offered no explanation for the nonvote, but said to check back at the end of August. Coincidentally or not, Santos’ date in federal court for sentencing is Aug. 25. 

Additional reporting by Lana Tleimat.

The Rodbigo Files:

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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. Muckraking at its finest with this headline:
    Firstly: Structural Engineering is not an illegal business.
    Secondly: The structure is highly likely to be “existing non-conforming” meaning it was there before the Planning code established a rear yard setback. Did you bother to look at the historic Sanborn maps or the Rumsey photos?
    Thirdly: Occupancy of such a structure is permitted in the current planning code by any number of Zoning Administrator interpretations.
    Amazing how the sensational headline gets it wrong. Poor journalism that feeds the narrative.

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    1. Hey, dude:

      Structural engineering is illegal when you’ve pleaded guilty to nearly 20 federal charges (to say nothing of the City Attorney charges about forgery and dangerous, unpermitted work);

      This wasn’t “existing nonconforming.” It was existing and rebuilt without permits;

      Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I don’t foresee the Zoning Administrator bending over backwards here. Frankly, I’m not sure why you felt the need to write this comment.


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    2. Which structural engineering firm is this? Whatever did happen to Altos Engineering?
      The author should check out all the addresses orphaned by S&U and their current status, and the neighbors too. Plenty of interesting stuff, if that’s what “Placed in P. O’Riordan’s office” nearly six years ago for a structural disaster waiting to happen looks like.

      P.S. why was the sentencing pushed back nearly two months from its original late June date?

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  2. Where are the conservative and Nextdoor crime scolds and fearmongers, the ones that went apoplectic over the Hill Bomb skaters, when it comes to not just serial but parallelized, juiced scofflaws like RodDBIgo?

    Rich thieves hang the poor thieves.

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  3. it’s almost as if he had a goal of committing every kind of violation and shady dealing possible!
    Has anyone checked to see if he’s been properly paying income and property taxes?
    Is there anything else illegal or shady he hasn’t gotten exposed on?

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  4. I wonder if he is responsible for all the Mission condos that were built with shady workmanship that didn’t get approved yet somehow passed all inspections?

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