The strange and terrible saga of Rodrigo Santos — the former city official, permit expediter and structural engineer who continued to work prolifically even after being charged and pleading guilty to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of his clients’ money — ground to a halt today.
Santos, 65, was sentenced to 30 months in prison by federal judge Susan Illston after pleading guilty to pillaging not only his clients but his longtime business partner. He was also dinged for tax evasion on the roughly $1.6 million he purloined and for engaging in a bribery scheme with ex-senior building inspector Bernie Curran. Curran was himself sentenced to a year and a day in prison on July 14.
The 2 year, 6 month sentence for Santos was more than the year and a day he and his counsel were hoping for and less than the 51 months called for by the U.S. Department of Justice. The probation department had called for 30 months, which Illston announced at the outset that she favored.
“Mr. Santos, you have been a lucky man all your life,” said Illston. “You have a wonderful family, a wonderful education, you are very bright and very talented.”
Referring to a drug case heard just prior to Santos, the judge continued, “Unlike the last defendant you had everything going for you. I find the offenses set out here to be very, very serious and very destructive.”
Federal prosecutor Casey Boome noted that, when confronted by the FBI, Santos “lied brazenly” by presenting false receipts to cover the money he’d filched from clients. Both the prosecutor and the judge noted that Santos has a long pattern of being caught in wrongdoing, asking forgiveness, and doing it again.
Boome said claims of Santos’ personal generosity to family and friends was mitigated by much of that generosity coming via “a tax-free income stream of $1.6 million” in stolen money.
He belittled Santos for making an issue over his voluntary surrender of his engineering licenses. Those licenses were going to be revoked — and Boome added that Santos’ move to voluntarily surrender them, in fact, nixed a hearing where they would’ve been taken away.
The federal prosecutor urged the judge not to be swayed by Santos and his supporters’ testimonials but “by his actions.” The behavior demonstrated during eight years of documented wrongdoing, Boome said, is not “out of character.” Rather it “is his character.”
Santos, his attorney Randy Knox, and his friends and supporters inveighed on the engineer’s behalf. Longtime friend and client Irving Zaretsky noted that Santos’ fees were modest enough that tenants never had to pay for upgrades via pass-through costs. Former Board of Education member Jill Wynns recalled walking through the Mission with Santos and being interrupted by people who praised Santos for his generosity. “I know Rodrigo only as a person who has done a lot of good,” she said.
Santos received emphatic support from some interesting backers. Peter Glickshtern was in 2020 accused of executing a pre-dawn vigilante homeless sweep from behind a building he owns. Henry Karnilowicz was in 2014 sued by the City Attorney for a “years-long pattern” of flouting Health Department orders and exposing his workers and the general public to lead and asbestos contamination.
Santos said he will use the rest of his life to educate young people and direct them into engineering. He said he has spent every moment of the last three years working to undo his mistakes and crimes.
“Rodrigo Santos did not need to steal to lead a comfortable life,” said Knox. “He wanted to be the paterfamilias. He wanted to be the head of the family.”
Knox said Santos’ theft was spurred by a desire to be generous, to support his disabled brother and to establish a film school at City College.
“Rodrigo Santos is not Robin Hood,” said Knox. “But he is not Bernie Madoff.”
Permit expediter extraordinaire
Santos was a youth track star in his native Ecuador and a competitive marathon runner as an adult in the United States. He showed up early at the Phillip Burton Federal Building and Courthouse for his late-morning sentencing with a bike helmet strapped to his backpack. He looked fit and lithe in a dark suit, and shared a laugh with a marshall when he momentarily forgot his belongings at the metal detector.
As a Stanford-educated structural engineer, Santos was, for decades, a man in incredible demand among San Francisco builders and property owners. This was as much or more for his abilities to serve as a Virgil through the city’s arcane permitting system as for his structural engineering prowess. His knack for navigating the city’s maddening building and development process transcended matters such as stealing some three quarters of a million dollars from his clients or ongoing charges from the City Attorney of permit forgery and undertaking dangerous and damaging excavations.
That’s because Santos’ projects added great value to his clients’ properties at a fraction of the time — and price — of doing things legally. Seen this way, his thefts of a couple thousand dollars here and there several hundred times was negligible; it was a cost of doing business.
The City Attorney sued Santos in 2018 alleging he misrepresented major, unpermitted excavations as minor work and engaged in out-and-out forgery in crafting the permits for this work. This suit is ongoing. In March 2020, then-City Attorney Dennis Herrera appended his suit with the bombshell allegations that Santos had diverted hundreds of checks from his clients into his own bank account — including a $1,314 check made out to “DBI” that Santos altered to read RoDBIgo Santos.
Following the local and federal corruption probes marked by the January 2020 FBI arrest of former Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru, Santos quickly became persona non grata at the Department of Building Inspection. He showed up anyway, sometimes on a daily basis — he was busy. But after years of coddling him, the department was unable to rid itself of him.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen in 2021 passed legislation requiring scofflaw builders to be placed on a publicly accessible “expanded compliance control” list and for their clients to be notified. Santos quickly found himself on that list. He remains its only member.
It’s been a long way down for Santos, who was appointed to the Building Inspection Commission overseeing the Department of Building Inspection by Mayor Willie Brown in 2000 and re-upped by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004. He served as that body’s president. Mayor Ed Lee in 2012 tapped Santos for a vacancy on the City College Board of Trustees, but he was subsequently swamped in the November election — despite spending a gaudy $90,000 on the race, including $70,000 out of his own pocket. In 2014, Santos ran again for City College board and, once again, finished far behind the pack.
In addition to incarceration, Santos is on the hook for both forfeiture and restitution — the latter to the tune of some $2.9 million. He owes restitution to some 200 clients for the roughly $775,000 he stole via appropriating their comparatively small checks. Santos also owes restitution for swiping $720,000 from his former company, Santos & Urrutia, and his former engineering partner, Albert Urrutia.
Santos and his counsel said that nearly half a million of the purloined money has been paid back or is in the process of being paid back. Knox said that Urrutia has “been made whole.”
Since Santos’ illegal “income” was not reported, he now owes some $1.3 million to the IRS, including penalties. Finally, the feds have claimed he owes more than $850,000 to the Department of Building Inspection for its ongoing audit of Santos and Curran’s work — but Santos’ counsel has disputed the methodology behind this calculation and that figure is yet to be determined.
Santos will be required to voluntarily surrender into custody on Dec. 1.