By Thomas K. Pendergast
As the former president of San Francisco’s Building Inspection Commission and a structural engineer, Rodrigo Santos left his mark on the construction permitting of buildings throughout the City, including the building at 311 11th Ave.
So now that Santos has been indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly writing fraudulent permits and illegally altering checks, it comes as no surprise that the two-story, mixed-use brick building on the southwest corner of 11th Avenue and Clement Street would get more attention than construction permitting normally does.
The other tipoff that something might be amiss is the slew of violation notices from the SF Department of Building Inspections (DBI) on the front door.
On May 12, 2020, Rodrigo Santos was criminally charged with bank fraud in connection with a scheme to divert funds into his personal bank account that his clients intended to be paid to the DBI and other city departments, according to the Justice Department.
Santos, now 63 years old, of San Francisco, was involved with inspection work both through his firm Santo and Urrutia Structural Engineers, Inc., and through political appointments, the Feds say.
Attempts to contact Santos for a comment about the charges were not successful by press time.
Santos was appointed to the SF Building Inspection Commission in 2000 and named the Commission’s president in 2004. The complaint alleges that between Jan. 13, 2016, and March 18, 2019, Santos deposited a number of checks into his personal bank account written to third-party departments, companies, and an individual. It further alleges that Santos fraudulently deposited into his personal account 261 checks totaling $478,377.83.
In one example, the DOJ alleges, that Santos instructed joint owners of a residential project to write a blank check to DBI for the uncertain cost of obtaining a permit from the agency.
After the owners wrote a check to DBI for an amount “not to exceed $3,000,” the check ultimately was deposited into Santos’ personal account with the hand-written endorsement “DBI” on the reverse of the check.
Another time the owners of a different residential project wrote several checks they believed would be submitted to DBI or the SF Department of Public Works for various permits. Santos caused four of the checks to be deposited into his personal bank account with “DPW” or “DBI” hand-written in the endorsement field on the reverse of the check.
Another DOJ allegation is that Santos deposited a $1,314.50 check paid to the order of “DBI” and Santos added letters changing “DBI” to “RoDBIgo SANTOS.”
When confronted with this evidence, Santos allegedly submitted forged invoices to the FBI.
Then in 2021 Santos was charged by the DOJ again, this time with wire fraud.
The DOJ alleges he requested his clients make charitable contributions to a local non-profit athletic organization and checks in the amount of $500 to $1,500 were written to the athletic organization on numerous occasions. In exchange, a DBI building inspector named Bernard Curran, 60, of San Francisco, would provide Santos’ clients with “favorable official treatment.”
Curran has also been indicted by the DOJ for wire fraud.
Although Curran does not appear to be involved with the remodeling permits of 311 11th Ave., Santos left his fingerprints there, metaphorically speaking, as first reported last month by Joe Eskenazi of Mission Local.
Eskenazi reported that in October 2020 Santos filled out permit applications for his client, building owner, and landlord Tony Gundogdu, which claimed bathroom remodels “in-kind” for six units in the building, which basically means “no structural changes. No changes to the layout.” Gundogdu signed off on it.
The problem, according to Eskenazi, is that the bathrooms didn’t actually exist. The upper floor of the building is a typical Single Room Occupancy (SRO) structure with two bathrooms shared by the tenants of 15 units.
To date, there is no indication that Gundogdu has been charged with any crimes. Phone calls and voicemail messages to Gundogdu seeking clarification were not returned by press time.
Planning Department documents, however, show that before he bought the building in 2017, there was about one complaint filed with them related to this building every two years or so.
In 2018, however, four complaints were filed, including one for electrical work done without a permit.
There was only one complaint in 2019 but then in 2020, right about the time the pandemic hit and shelter in place orders came up, complaints about this property began increasing, with 12 listed for that year alone. Although some of these were duplicate complaints, others were for things like doing construction work without a permit and violating pandemic shelter-in-place orders and protocols.
Department records from April of 2020 show comments from inspectors like the following: “There is definitely electrical construction occurring at this address without permit” and a Notice of Violation’ (NOV) was issued.” Then, a later “complainant called to inform that construction has resumed despite issued NOV.”
Inspectors later found plumbing work being done without a permit.
In 2021 there were nine complaints recorded by the department, including complaints of electrical, plumbing, and furnace work being done without permits, using expired permits, or doing work “way beyond the scope of current permits.”
So far in 2022, there have been seven complaints filed with the department.
The latest came to light when a water pipe burst and a DBI inspector came out to find that, once again, the owner did not have a permit and protection to keep tenants from breathing construction dust was not adequate.
“The way it got found out was because of the tenants who lived there – the noise, we’d just had it,” tenant Iris Perla, 64, said. “So, they went downstairs and tried to get permit information from the workmen. When they couldn’t get the information, they reported it to DBI.
“At that point, they found out that they didn’t have the permits they needed,” Perla said. “And the only reason the original permit was signed, this is by this semi-criminal Rodrigo Santos. He’s like the landlord’s friend; he’ll sign off on anything, even though it was illegal what they were doing.
“(Santos) signed it off and lied, and said it was renovating existing bathrooms. So that’s why they were allowed in the first place,” she said. “So they didn’t have the permits. Then it got shut down. But even after they put these violation notes up the workers still tried to sneak back, but that was shut down real quick.”
Bob O’Brien, 70, said he has been living in the building for about 32 years and the last few of them have been difficult.
“It’s been stressful. I think that’s the first word that comes to mind,” O’Brien said. “And not just for me, I’ve felt a certain frustration and stress from other tenants here. I feel like they’re under stress as well as me.”
When he approached Gundogdu to discuss issues at the site, he said, it did not go well.
“He was here talking with a worker in the hallway,” O’Brien said. “I met him outside to see if he had a permit number for the work being done. Our brief conversation ended with him saying that I’m making too many complaints, to DBI, I think, and if I don’t like living here to leave.
“To which I replied ‘tenants have rights. I have a right to be here.’”
DBI Communications Director Patrick Hannan said it is unusual for one building to have so many complaints in such a relatively short time.
He noted that SROs don’t usually have bathrooms for individual units.
“The true violation was about misrepresenting the existing conditions,” Hannan said. “And also doing some work beyond the permit. They really misrepresented the existing conditions, namely that there were bathrooms already existing in the units.”