On the eve of former DBI commission president Rodrigo Santos’s federal sentencing Friday for fraud, tax evasion, and lying to the FBI, a new report delves into his corrupt exploits that allegedly date back to at least 2005.
Even though former Department of Building Inspection commission president Rodrigo Santos had already pleaded guilty to many federal counts of check fraud (including manually changing checks made out to “DBI” so they were instead made out to “RoDBIgo Santos”), a Mission Local piece last month contained a startling revelation: People are still hiring Santos as a permit expediter! Santos, who was arrested five months into Mohammed Nuru scandal, is “still attached to nearly 100 active building projects in San Francisco,” according to a Chronicle report published today.
Here's an example of how former SF Building Inspection Commission President Rodrigo Santos altered checks made out to "DBI" to "RoDBIgo Santos" so he could allegedly deposit them into his personal bank account. He's facing federal bank fraud charges pic.twitter.com/Ru3ttNzCQ2— Michael Bott (@TweetBottNBC) May 14, 2020
But that may soon end, as that Chronicle reports notes Santos will be sentenced Friday in a U.S. District Court. That Chronicled report also notes that Santos’s corruption and penchant for getting things done with bribes was an open secret at City Hall for years, if not decades.
“He was a well-known unethical scofflaw,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin told the Chonicle. “It was grand theft auto, year after year.”
That report paints a picture of Santos as an ambitious workaholic who opened his office at 6 a.m., a marathon runner with a taste for expensive suits. He hailed from a powerful and well-connected family Ecuador, got himself a bachelor’s and a master’s in engineering at Stanford, and co-founded a sought-after local structural engineering firm called Santos & Urrutia. They were known for charging 30% less than their competitors and getting results on thousands of permits in San Francisco. Then-Mayor Wille Brown appointed Santos to the Building Inspection Commission 2000, and he was then elevated to president of the commission by Gavin Newsom in 2004, all while his private firm was still doing permit work.
What was this special sauce that allowed Santos's firm to charge so much less than his competitors? He would get permits for smaller projects, like kitchen or bathroom remodels, and then do larger projects, like full garages, or even excavation beneath neighbors’ homes that undermined their foundations. Plus there were bribery allegations against Santos going back to 2005, and ultimately, then-City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued him in 2018 for flouting permit codes.
The Chron notes one 2014 incident where Santos got permits for an interior home remodel, yet for some reason a bulldozer showed up and started excavating. That work cracked a neighboring house’s foundation, and infested the neighbor’s home with rats and raccoons. (The project was never completed.) The previous year, a Twin Peaks house for which Santos got work permits fell down a hill. The pattern was Santos’s firm doing work that was much broader than the actual permits he’d obtained authorized, yet there were seemingly never any consequences for this.
And he was able to get away with it, perhaps because as the Chronicle notes, Santos made at least $435,000 in political contributions to candidates over the last 20 years.
And as the Chronicle also notes, the corruption may be baked into the cake in San Francisco, where it takes forever to build anything. Since it takes so long to get permits, the corrupt players tend to be the most effective. “You’ve gotta break the rules” to get anything done, Independent Institute research fellow Christopher Calton told the Chron. “And that’s the environment San Francisco has cultivated.”
Santos’s attorneys are asking for a sentence of a year and a day in prison, the same sentence former DBI inspector Bernie Curran received last month. That seems unlikely, as Santos is a bigger fish, and Curran didn’t submit false documents to the FBI like Santos did.
But Santos is a player who’s gamed the system for years. So maybe don’t be surprised if a year and a day from tomorrow, Rodrigo Santos is back in business expediting building permits in San Francisco.
Image: Rodrigo Santos via Facebook