London Mayor Breed pushes for reforms to SF building department after ‘ethical violations’ and criminal charges


San Francisco Mayor London Breed on Thursday issued an executive order reforming the scandal-ridden city’s building inspection department following a city investigation and criminal charges.

The city comptroller’s office found that the department’s inspection data lacked guarantees and could be edited incorrectly, some building complaints were not properly addressed, and some building violation fines were too high. weak. The result has been “inappropriate preferential treatment and routine conflicts of interest,” the comptroller’s office said Thursday.

“The comptroller’s report released today documents an unacceptable pattern of misconduct and systemic failures under the previous leadership of the Building Inspection Department. He describes a culture that has enabled the prosecution of wrongdoing defined by a “tone at the top” that has failed to institute leadership and ethical guidelines. The people of San Francisco deserve better, ”Breed said in a statement.

The Breed ordinance calls for improving the department’s permit review and inspection systems to detect irregularities, promoting the city’s whistleblower program, better staff training, and the creation of ‘a compliance team to review the department. The changes will begin immediately.

“When a resident or a business interacts with the City, they deserve transparency, accessibility and a quick response. When a city service relies on an opaque, archaic and overly bureaucratic system, it not only fails to meet those standards, but it also creates an environment that allows corruption to flourish, ”said Breed.

Patrick O’Riordan, acting director of DBI, said the department was already undergoing reforms.

“We welcome this review and appreciate the Comptroller’s recommendations which we intend to fully implement as part of our broader and ongoing reform initiative,” he said in a statement. “I am outraged by what has happened in the past at DBI and how past leaders undermined the good work of our staff every day and violated public trust. This is not fair and I am determined to get us back on the right track.

In July 2020, the department moved to a new office at 49 South Van Ness Ave., and O’Riordan said the new permit center has improved efficiency and collaboration. In the past six months, the department has updated its code of conduct, staff training and inspections, he said.

Over the past 18 months, the Ministry has replaced its Deputy Director for Inspection Services, Deputy Director for Permitting Services, Manager by Agreement and Senior Building Inspector.

As of January 2020, federal prosecutors indicted 13 city employees and contractors in a broad corruption investigation, including then-director of public works Mohammed Nuru, who allegedly accepted bribes from people doing business in the city.

Longtime DBI chief Tom Hui resigned last year after accepting free meals from real estate developer Zhang Li, whose company was building the troubled 555 Fulton St. project, according to an investigation by the district attorney. city. Hui gave preferential treatment to Zhang’s permit consultant Walter Wong, who last year pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering charges. He was banned from doing business with the city for five years and paid the city over $ 300,000.

Hui also helped his son and his son’s girlfriend get jobs in the city, according to the city attorney.

The comptroller’s office found that Hui “placed little emphasis on organizational responsibility and ethical accountability”, instead focusing on the prompt processing of permits, which led to “significant ethical violations.” The ministry processed 178,355 permits for projects with a combined value of $ 11.7 billion over the past three fiscal years.

Hui did not disclose any gifts despite several private dinners paid for by Wong and Zhang. DBI appeared to give preferential treatment to Zhang’s project at 555 Fulton St., reviewing and approving the project’s shoring construction plan in an “unusually fast” process, subtracting the shoring permit fee from the project. project for $ 9,300 and not performing a quality review, according to the comptroller’s office. No one who has examined the shoring permit is yet employed by the city. DBI identified the former staff member who oversaw the shoring permit as Cyril Yu.

Hui could not immediately be reached for comment.

Other DBI officials have been charged with wrongdoing. In August and July, Bernie Curran and Rodrigo Santos were indicted by the federal government for allegedly taking money in exchange for preferential treatment. Curran was previously a senior building inspector and Santos is the former chairman of the Building Inspection Commission, which oversees the DBI. The San Francisco City attorney previously sued Santos and another contractor, Peter Schurman, in 2018 for alleged fraud in several construction projects.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen held a hearing on Tuesday over a project that illegally crammed 29 apartments into a building that was only approved for 10 and which Curran signed off on. She said the new reforms represented progress, but there was still a long way to go.

“It’s a good start, but I don’t think it’s enough,” she said. “Corruption has long paid off in San Francisco. Until you make the consequences of corruption really serious, I think when the focus calms down, I think we can get back to how it’s been done for decades.

Ronen and supervisor Aaron Peskin plan to introduce legislation to increase penalties for corruption. Peskin said this could potentially include blocking people who commit wrongdoing from receiving pensions – Nuru and Hui continue to receive monthly payments despite their scandals.

“We’re definitely not going to let go. We are going to do everything in our power to make sure that never happens again, ”said Ronen.

The federal investigation into corruption has spread to the highest ranks of town hall.

The Director of the Public Services Commission, Harlan Kelly, was also accused of accepting bribes from Wong and later resigned. He denied the charges. His wife Naomi Kelly resigned her post as city administrator, the highest unelected post in San Francisco, in February. She has not been charged with wrongdoing.

And Breed was fined nearly $ 23,000 for ethical violations last month, in part because she allowed Nuru – who she had previously dated – to pay for repairs to her car.

Roland Li is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @rolandlisf

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