San Francisco’s City Attorney, Dennis Herrera, has just filed suit against construction engineering firm Santos & Urrutia Associates, its principals and several clients and contractors over “an elaborate scheme” to excavate and expand under multiple San Francisco homes without securing proper permits and employing forged documents, lies and fake plans to trick inspectors and City agencies.

Rodrigo Santos, the firm’s chief financial officer, is a former president of the Building Inspection Commission. Albert Urrutia, the firm’s chief executive officer, has sat on the City College Board of Trustees and the City’s Workforce Investment Board. And according to the complaint, “Santos’ and Urrutia’s decades of experience and familiarity with the Department of Building Inspection was used to circumvent regulation and oversight by that department and the Planning Department.”

The lawsuit, which is tied to three San Francisco properties in specific (147 Marietta Drive, 601A Fell Street and 457 Roosevelt Way, which is pictured above) also names the contractors that performed the un-permitted work and the property owners as defendants.

From Herrera’s office with respect to the basic scheme:

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. They also failed to notify adjacent property owners of the excavations as required by law.

Only after being caught and cited by the Department of Building Inspection did the defendants file permit applications to get the correct permits. But even then the defendants repeatedly falsified the information on those applications and continued to work beyond the scope of their permits and in violation of numerous City stop-work orders.

The use of fake excavation and emergency shoring permits; special inspection reports with forged signatures and stamps; and alternate sets of plans, such as one set for a permitted “kitchen and bathroom remodel” versus a secret second set of plans which included the addition of an entirely new floor and living space, were also employed.

Sound familiar?

The suit seeks a court order appointing a receiver to properly repair the properties so they conform to the law; an order preventing the defendants from claiming any tax benefits for the properties; a disclosure to the City of all work the defendants are performing in San Francisco; and monetary penalties of up to $500 per day for each violation of the Building Code, up to $1,000 per day for each Planning Code violation, and up to $2,500 for each unfair business practice violation, which could easily total seven figures in all.

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by SFMichael

    Last time I checked “forg[ing] signatures” was a felony, which can get you a lot more than just a fine.

    • Posted by SFRealist

      Herrera isn’t the DA. He can’t file criminal charges.

      • Posted by SFMichael

        Which isn’t to say that someone else can’t.

  2. Posted by MyOddCommentHandle

    YGKTFO! [Smokey GIF from Friday]

  3. Posted by Notcom

    Excavategate ??

    The head is accurate, but it might tend to leave the impression – at least by reason of proximity – that the fraud occurred while the defendant was actually ON the Commission…tho that seems not to be the case.

  4. Posted by Adam

    It is about time. More enforcement actions like this please! This former planning guy should get his right to work in construction in this town taken away.

    • Posted by Outoftown

      It would automatically cause him to loose his pension – right?

      • Posted by MarinaBoy

        Commissioners do not get pensions…it basically is a volunteer based position!

        • Posted by Outoftown

          Thanks for the info – I doubt there would have been such consequences even if he had been on the payroll.

      • Posted by Notcom

        I doubt it: tho he may have used his knowledge of the workings of government in this scheme, he didn’t actually use his (former) office for it; translation: his job – for which he receives his pension – was not impacted…assuming of course something illegal wasn’t (also) done before he left.

  5. Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

    Tina Tam from SF Planning and her husband, who is an architect, got tagged with a stop-work order in the southern part of the city a few years back for something similar. These departments are filled with people who know the rules and how to break/manipulate them.

    • Posted by A forner planner

      I have no particular knowledge of what you speak, but I do know Tina Tam and she is very honest. Stop work orders are not unusual either.

      She should [not] be mentioned in the same breath as Santos.

      • Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

        Stop work orders are unusual unless you are accustomed to breaking rules. Ask Tina Tam if she ever bought a house to flip, got red tagged for illegal demolitition beyond the scope of her permit, and then chose to bail out of the project rather than become a Socketsite headline.

        • Posted by Developer in SF

          Based on my interactions with Tina Tam, not a surprise that she tried to skirt the rules and got red tagged. Amazingly she is still gainfully employed at the Planning department after that fiasco.

      • Posted by Moses

        Ditto. Can we please leave Tina alone?

  6. Posted by johntrev

    The Dec 2017 Google Street View of 147 Marietta shows workers installing a heavy load-bearing beam on top of 8-10 foot stacks of cribbing – this is no simple over the counter permit job. From the street, the site looks level, but the property drops steeply in the rear/to the east. I’ve walked by 147 a number of times over the last couple years, relieved that it wasn’t my neighbor doing all this crazy foundation and engineering work, potentially undermining my foundation with their excavation.

    • Posted by SocketSite

      “At 147 Marietta Drive the defendants used a contractor whose license had been revoked. When the illegal excavation was discovered, the defendants submitted an application for an emergency shoring permit listing another construction company that was actually not involved in the project. The defendants even included a photo of that company’s Cal/OSHA excavation permit to mislead inspectors into believing the work was being done by a properly licensed contractor.

      Additionally, the defendants submitted to building inspectors at least three falsified special inspection reports with forged signatures and forged engineer’s stamps from an engineer who never had any affiliation with the project.”

      And yes, a neighboring home’s foundation was, in fact, undermined.

      • Posted by tippy

        This one deserves its own Netflix mini series, with bawling neighbors as their house crumbles….

  7. Posted by BTinSF

    These people were appointed to SF boards and commissions by the city’s corrupt Democratic machine and its functionaries. It just shows how corrupt is the entire cadre of people that have been running the city now for decades. I hope the named persons get the book thrown at them, but they are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. San Francisco can’t even collect cable car fares or bus fares without being ripped off. The whole city can seem like a scam.

    • Posted by dB

      What’s always struck me is how low-grade and “backwater” so much of the scam & corruption is here (not that I wish for the corruption to be more sophisticated – I just wish there was far less of it).

      My Boston-born mother has said that growing up in the 50’s & 60’s, SF was never viewed as more than a provincial, frontier sort of place. That feeling remains palpable here – the only city where the press & gov’t continually declare that it is a “world class city”. (Protest thou much?)

      • Posted by Notcom

        Yes: I too wish is that SF might one day have the same modesty as “the Hub of the Universe”

  8. Posted by Born N Bred

    Wasn’t Santos the engineer of record for 125 Crown Terrace 5 years ago?

  9. Posted by Pablito

    I wonder, buddies with Mel Murphy? 🙂 Every time I go down to DBI, I’m shocked by how bad it is. Employees at the counter nitpicking everything on a legitimate application – while stamping other sets approved with barely a glance.

    • Posted by denis

      This is completely accurate.

      • Posted by SFRealist

        And it’s been that way for decades….any no Mayor ever gets around to actually doing anything about it.

        • Posted by denis

          I don’t think people realize how bad it actually is. And this isn’t a conspiracy theory either.

          • Posted by SFRealist

            One problem is that DBI is highly motivated to resist any change. As has been highlighted repeatedly, it’s a great gig. Work for a few years, then become an expediter and make the real money.

            I’m not aware of any serious effort by any Mayor or even any individual Supervisor to change it.

    • Posted by Tor

      Spending the greater part of a day trying to submit a permit application is a soul-deadening experience.

      • Posted by pablito

        Yep. The truly soul-deadening part isn’t spending the half of a day – its seeing others breeze up – former employees?, relatives?, who knows? – a closed counter window suddenly becomes open, they hop the line, plans are taken no questions asked, and the approval stamp comes out immediately for them….

        You realize it doesn’t matter how hard you worked or how thorough you went through your plan set submission – the game is rigged for the favorites. That’s the soul deadening part.

        • Posted by SFRealist

          What kills me is that there’s no popular constituency to defend the status quo. Backs are mutually scratched. But everyone else is screwed. The only people in favor of the present system are the tight network on the inside and the outside. I’d imagine that every other constituency at city hall would be in favor of cracking down. And yet it has not and will never happen.

  10. Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

    I think it’s kind of a like being a lobbyist. You put some time in “public service” (serving in a governmental role) and then leave to join “private industry” and barnacle on to the beast to draw what you can in perpetuity.

  11. Posted by Tor

    I first encountered S&U 12 years ago, when they were the go-to engineers for demolition permits. Something did not smell right, even then.

  12. Posted by Cmon

    Why didn’t Socketsite name the property owners?

    What is the case number of the lawsuit?

  13. Posted by KristenPDX

    If we are talking corruption. Let’s bring it all out. Why are smaller projects in planning held up for months while land use attorneys and connected architects use their grip on planning staff to move their projects?

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