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  • J.K. Dineen - SF Chronicle

Investigation into S.F.’s acting building inspections director finds no evidence of wrongdoing

An investigation into allegations that Interim Department of Building Inspections Director Patrick O’Riordan favored politically connected developers in a previous role a decade ago found no evidence of wrongdoing, according to City Attorney David Chiu.

The investigation looked at three controversial projects — 3418 26th Street, 220 25th St. and 700 Valencia St. — all of which were permitted between 2009 and 2012 when O’Riordan was senior building inspector.

All three projects were the subject of whistle-blower complaints by Norman Gutierrez, a former DBI inspector, and Christopher Schroeder, a current DBI inspector. Gutierrez and Schroeder both alleged that O’Riordan, who was their supervisor at the time, “inappropriately took over the inspections and stopped them from enforcing the building code because the projects were associated with influential and politically connected builders,” according to the report.

“They suggest that O’Riordan used ‘kid gloves’ on these projects to unfairly favor the project sponsors,” stated the executive summary of the city attorney report. After reviewing permit history and interviewing participants, the city attorney found “that O’Riordan’s conduct related to the projects was appropriate and consistent with DBI enforcement standards and its code of conduct.” The report, written by the city attorney’s Public Integrity and Investigations Team, deemed that the claims made by Gutierrez and Schroeder “were not credible in light of the permit history for the projects and other evidence that we gathered through our investigation.” It said both inspectors had a “basis for bias and animus” against O’Riordan because the now-interim director had disciplined them. Gutierrez was disciplined in 2013 and Schroeder in 2021. “The only allegations of any preferential treatment or impropriety against O’Riordan that we identified come from Gutierrez and Schroeder, whom our investigation found not credible,” stated the report. Neither Gutierrez nor Schroeder could be reached for comment. But while the investigation failed to turn up evidence that O’Riordan had violated building codes, it did find a culture of corruption at DBI, which over the last year has been the focus of an ongoing federal criminal probe. The corruption investigation has led to the federal indictment of former senior building inspector Bernie Curran, as well as two notorious permits “expediters” — Walter Wong and Rodrigo Santos.

“Our role as investigators is to follow the facts wherever they lead,” said Chiu. “Thankfully, we are able to report that the allegations made against the interim DBI director are without merit. However, our investigation did show just how extensive the problems were under previous DBI leadership. The unethical tone set at the top resulted in a culture that tolerated, if not encouraged, favoritism towards the politically connected. There is no place for that type of behavior in San Francisco.” The report pointed to an “unethical tone set under former DBI Director Tom Hui, which resulted in favoritism toward well-connected individuals with business before the department.” Despite multiple complaints about rampant favoritism, Hui remained the director of DBI and received multiple pay increases. The report outlines how Hui failed to disclose or act on a confidential 2014 report by the Government Services Administration that uncovered “preferential treatment” given to Mel Murphy, a former DBI commission president who was caught building without proper permits after a home he owned at 125 Crown Terrace collapsed and slid down a hill. The city attorney said that the “errors and preferential treatment that were uncovered during GSA’s investigation” were never made public and that Hui took no action. “That culture reveals a failure of leadership, including by former DBI Director Tom Hui, to prioritize or model ethical conduct and to implement reforms that would limit the ability to provide preferential treatment and provide greater transparency and accountability at DBI,” states the city attorney’s report. The city attorney probe into allegations against O’Riordan is one piece of a larger public corruption investigation launched immediately after federal criminal charges were filed in January 2020 against former Director of Public Works Mohammed Nuru.

City Controller Ben Rosenfield, who in September put out a report on ethical breaches at DBI, said the “city attorney’s conclusion underscores the fact that bad leadership can be corrosive and impact an entire organization even after an individual is no longer in charge.” “Righting wrongs is a much harder task, and that’s why ethical guidelines, strong reporting and monitoring programs, and firm penalties for misconduct are critical to establish early on,” said Rosenfield. J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @sfjkdineen

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