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City sues former building inspection president for alleged fraud

City Attorney claims Rodrigo Santos used years of experience overseeing building inspection to cheat building codes himself

Photo by Sundry Photography/Shutterstock

On Thursday, the city of San Francisco announced that it had sued the SF-based engineering firm Santos and Urrutia, alleging “an elaborate fraud scheme” that tried to cheat city codes with unlicensed alterations to homes.

According to City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s charges, the firm allegedly got a lot of help from one of its principals, Rodrigo Santos, who used to head the public commission that enforces city building codes.

Herrera accuses Santos of using his years of experience with the bylaws to devise workarounds covering up illegal construction. According to a statement on the city attorney’s site:

The property owners hired Santos & Urrutia to assist in adding lower floors to their homes by digging below the existing foundation. These types of excavations require extensive regulatory oversight to ensure they’re done safely.

However, the defendants in this case misrepresented the work they planned to do as uncomplicated construction, like remodeling a bathroom or kitchen. They quickly obtained over-the-counter building permits for simple construction and then did major excavations far beyond the scope of those permits or without permits at all.

The suit includes charges of “forged documents, an unlicensed contractor, outright lies to City agencies, and a dummy set of plans to trick inspectors.”

According to documents accompanying the court filings, at one cited home in the Miraloma neighborhood the permit obtained was to repair a fence.

The Department of Building Inspection later posted notices that the work actually being done involved digging five to six feet beneath the foundation to create a subterranean addition.

Herrera identifies Santos (who is named in the suit along with his company and fellow principal Albert Urrutia) as “a former president of the Building Inspection Commission, the public body responsible for ensuring that building codes are followed.”

Herrera alleges that Santos “[used] decades of experience and familiarity with the Department of Building Inspection to circumvent regulation” and that the unpermitted digging threatened the seismic stability of neighboring homes.

In January, the same Building Inspection Commission that Santos used to run forwarded complaints about three Santos projects to the city attorney, including one in which a house “fell off its site preparation shoring and slid down the property slope.”

According to his biography on the Santos and Urrutia site, Santos, who lives in Noe Valley, went to Stanford and has “collaborated with world-renowned architectural firms Stanley Saitowitz, Ace Architects, and Arquitectonica.”

Mayor Willie Brown appointed Santos to the Building Inspection Commission in 2000. Gavin Newsom made him president of the commission in 2004.

In 2012, late Mayor Ed Lee appointed Santos to the City College Board of Trustees, calling him “a reformer.”

Santos and Urrutia has not yet responded to Curbed SF’s request for comment. For the record, note that the allegations in the city’s suit are yet to be proven by any legal standard.