When ex-Department of Building Inspection plan checkers Rudy Pada and Cyril Yu were federally charged this month for allegedly benefitting from a longstanding bribery scheme, none of their former colleagues was surprised.
The goings-on within the building department are arcane and complex, as was the investigation the feds undertook to unearth this alleged bribery scheme. But the scheme itself is not complex: Pada and Yu are charged with allegedly accepting meals, drinks, bribes and kickbacks to help wealthy developers move projects through the building department’s notoriously sclerotic process — that’s all.
“As part of the scheme, Co-conspirator #3 would pay Yu between $1,200 and $1,700 in cash for helping approve building plans for Co-conspirator #3’s company,” reads the Nov. 2 charging document. “Co-conspirator #3 would pay Yu in cash, typically during drives to lunch together.”
Yu’s erstwhile colleagues aren’t surprised, but they are confused. We’ve written it before, but the cost of doing corruption would appear to be one of the few remaining bargains in San Francisco. Yu comes from a family of means, and earned a solid living at the department (nearly $222,000 in total pay and benefits in 2020). It is unclear why he would purportedly feel the need to resort to that ultimate trope of corruption, the cash-filled envelope. He did not return Mission Local’s email or text.
Yu’s family, in fact, owns at least five properties around the city — and, going through the building department’s own records for these sites, oddities abound.
In what appears to be a direct contravention of the building department’s code of ethics, in June 2020 Yu approved a permit for work on a Lombard Street home owned by the Carson and Irene Yu Revocable Trust — his parents.
“I will request to be recused from any issue in which I, a member of my family, or a close personal acquaintance has an interest,” reads the operative section of the DBI’s ethics code.
But that didn’t happen on Lombard Street.
The reroofing permit in question lists the job at $13,000, so it’s not exactly a king’s ransom (though analyzing the value of a project is, in fact, a key element of a plan-checker’s job). And, while “reroofing” is sometimes used as a guise by bad actors to undertake major reconstruction, before-and-after photos of the Lombard Street home reveal a new roof and no more.
Rather, in this case, time was money. Yu’s former colleagues point out that in mid-2020, the Building Department was mired in a lockdown, and it was extremely difficult to obtain over-the-counter permits; months-long delays were commonplace.
But not on this project. The permit was filed on June 4, Yu approved it on June 5 and it was issued on June 8 — a snappy turnaround in good times, let alone during the dog days of the pandemic.
The San Francisco Standard’s Michael Barba recently published a thorough exposé of building inspector Van Zeng, who has been suspended after he purportedly signed off on multiple properties owned by his family members. In an act of remarkable synchronicity, the inspector who signed the final inspection on the reroofing permit for the Yu family’s Lombard home was none other than Van Zeng.
Yu’s fingerprints are not directly on the other four San Francisco properties his family owns that Mission Local identified. But there are many red flags — and the biggest and reddest and most widespread of those red flags comes in the personage of Bernie Curran.
Curran is currently serving a federal prison term stemming from a bribery conviction (he’s also on the hook for a two-year prison term for state-level perjury charges). He took money from developer Sia Tahbazof, who was recently hit with federal charges that he was also paying off Pada and Yu. If the feds’ charges are true, then Tahbazof essentially achieved vertical integration at the Department of Building Inspection: He purportedly owned the guys approving his plans and the guy who’d be out inspecting them in the field.
For years before the hammer fell, Curran was a larger-than-life figure within the building department, boisterous and jocular and so self-assured in the overt corruption that he was engaging in that former colleagues recall him generously re-gifting the gift cards he’d been handed “on the job.”
The man (kinda sorta) affectionately known as “Crazy Bernie” by his colleagues established a cottage industry of gallivanting across town and signing off on permits and final inspections. This is suspect and unusual; district inspectors are generally supposed to do this, not senior inspectors like Curran — and, especially, not out-of-district senior inspectors.
Curran had been doing this long enough that his propensities, specifically, inspired DBI rules in 2014 regarding who should and should not do inspections. He clearly contravened the rules that were created because of his own behavior, and continued to do as he pleased for years. Within the department, there was even a term for inspectors bucking the chain of command and/or traveling out of their districts to sign off on work: “A specialist.”
Spotting Curran on a building’s inspection record is a bit like seeing G. Gordon Liddy as a scheduled speaker on an ethics panel: It stops you in your tracks, and is a clear indicator of profound potential problems. Let the record show that Curran is all over the records for the Yu family’s homes.
And Curran is not only here, he’s doing Curran things. At a home the Yus own on Eucalyptus Drive, for example, Curran assigned himself to the property — never a good sign — and, on that very same day, signed the final inspection on a $25,000 bathroom remodel.
In 2016, a complaint was registered regarding a 24th Avenue property co-owned by Cyril Yu and his parents. “Caller believes [address] has work beyond the scope of the permit being done.”
That complaint was opened on May 31 by Chris Schroeder, the building inspector then overseeing that district. But, on June 2, it was yanked away by senior inspector Bernie Curran, who emphatically quashed it, even writing “case closed” in the notes.
Tracked down for comment, Schroeder, who no longer works for the building department, said he could not recall this particular instance of Curran bigfooting him and ameliorating a complaint on a connected individual’s property. That’s because “this happened many times.”
The permits on this 24th Avenue home — which Curran claimed were all being adhered to in justifying his vehement spiking of the complaint — were all, in fact, being overseen by Curran.
In March 2017, he signed off on a $20,000 kitchen remodel — which had had no prior DBI field inspections.
Two months later, he signed off on a $250,000, three-floor horizontal extension and interior remodel — with no recorded prior DBI field inspections. This was a big, complex job; there were no fewer than 16 special inspections mandated here, which were undertaken privately. But Curran’s final inspection appears to be the only one undertaken by DBI personnel.
The good news: A foundation upgrade on the site actually does have four recorded DBI field inspections. The bad news: Bernie Curran did them all.
Curran is currently a federal inmate. Yu no longer works at DBI either; he left two years ago, after having taken an extended leave. Whatever air cover he had at the department appears to be gone.
So, when a complaint was called in on Yu’s 24th Avenue property this month, nobody was able to wave a magic wand and make it go away. Quite the contrary: The complaint was assigned to the department’s “investigation team,” and a Notice of Violation was slapped on the building.
Belatedly, the actions Curran undertook on multiple Yu family properties have been red-flagged; both the Eucalyptus and 24th Avenue sites came up in the ongoing departmental audit of Curran’s work. Letters will be sent and questions will be asked.
DBI officials, we are told, took the liberty of viewing Yu’s 24th Avenue property via Google Earth, and noticed it appears to have deviated from its approved plans.
Years after the fact, it appears there will be inspections here. And, perhaps, introspection: If the building department is serious about “close personal acquaintances” not working on each other’s properties, it might want to scour the records to see who was approving work on the Yu family homes. Some have left the department — some have been incarcerated or are facing time — but some have not.
The Department of Building Inspection, it seems, will take a hard look at all these properties. They may not like what they find. Yu’s colleagues would not be surprised.