Having completed a “Public Integrity Review” of the Department of Building Inspection’s (DBI’s) permitting and inspection processes, driven by a need to root out departmental fraud and a history of inappropriate activities, the Controller’s Office of San Francisco has identified the following weaknesses in the DBI’s systems, processes and controls:

1. The department’s permitting and inspection system lacks system controls to ensure completed data is entered into the system and to prevent inappropriate after-the-fact changes to recorded inspection records. Other review and inspection milestones and policies to manage such changes are uneven and inadequately monitored.
2. The department does not make use of available data to track, monitor, and investigate certain “red flag” activities, such as out-of-area inspections, inappropriately expedited review of project plans, or approvals by those without proper authorization to do so.
3. Review and investigation of complaints or higher-risk activities is not standardized across the department, and in some cases inappropriately assigned to units to review their own initially-performed work.
4. Financial penalties for non-compliance with code appear in some cases too low and do not provide an adequate incentive to adhere to City-established requirements.
5. These internal control weaknesses, combined with a pattern of poor ethical management under the former director, [Tom Hui,] sustained a negative “tone at the top” during his tenure.

And in terms of the Office’s preliminary recommendations for departmental reform, “to prevent nepotism, cronyism, and corruption in the future”:

1. Foster an ethical organizational culture by ensuring there is an ethical tone at the top and by promoting adherence to ethics disclosure and conduct laws.
2. Create a strong reporting and compliance program to identify risks and ensure consistent enforcement of its robust ethical rules and policies.
3. Ensure public transparency, consistency, and adequate internal controls in the recording and modification of data in its records.
4. Use existing data to conduct monitoring that will help identify fraud and abuse risks.
5. Consider requiring plan reviewers and inspectors to certify compliance with city conflict-of-interest rules to deter bribery, nepotism, and favoritism.
6. Provide more public outreach and education on its internal permitting and inspection requirements and processes to help the public identify proper and improper practices when they interact with the department.

In addition, a review of the fees and penalties the department is authorized to levy for noncompliant construction has been recommended as well, “to determine whether they are severe enough to effectively deter misconduct” or need to be increased, particularly with respect to the minor penalty for unpermitted work that’s deemed to have “exceeded the scope of an approved permit” versus simply having been unpermitted. We’ll keep you posted and plugged-in.

17 thoughts on “The City’s Assessment of DBI’s Integrity and Required Reforms”
  1. These look like good recommendations to limit the damage that insider crooks can inflict. But what about prosecuting the crooks to put actual teeth in the recommendations and send a signal that illegal activity will not be tolerated?

    1. What about hiring professional leaders, and giving them political cover to actually reform the department by hiring professionals?

  2. What about going back and reviewing all of those “sign offs” by Bernie Curran and other inspectors? If Curran did 10x the number of sign offs then is normal for a field inspector, how many of those were just signatures with no inspection? How many people are living in unsafe buildings (like with no 2nd means of egress??) with no knowledge that their own building may be substantially code deficient?

    1. Beyond the above review and recommendations, “Interim DBI Director Patrick O’Riordan has tasked his new executive team with implementing a series of reform initiatives to address issues raised by the federal complaint, the City Attorney’s investigation, and findings of wrongdoing by former employees,” which includes the creation of an internal audit team “to identify criteria that will trigger a life/safety review of properties where plans or inspections may have received improper preferential treatment from DBI staff in the past.”

  3. Good. Now how about addressing the self important, but incompetent, Planning Department that assigns junior planners, two or three years out of school, who interpret the planning code to their own personal liking and delay projects by months on end???

  4. Imagine a planning and building apparatus that prohibited “value engineering,” plywood with a stucco slurry, wind tunnel effects, empty soulless “just add water and stir” kool-aid neighborhoods with building names (and every detail down to the doorknobs) identical to a dozen other such buildings in a dozen other cities (a la NEMA) built in a perfunctory fashion… an a prohibition on “grassroots” groups that are actually paid fronts for developers.

    …perchance to dream.

  5. It’s entertaining to hear city government and the Board of Supervisors suddenly demanding improvements to DBI. This exact thing has literally been happening for decades and now they are shocked–shocked!!–to learn that DBI is a racket.

  6. Typical.

    They’re going to try to legislate themselves out of this.

    Never mind the fact that the reason there was a corrupt avoidance machine in the first place was because the system itself was so onerous and broken.

    How about implementing code, simply?

    “You’ve got a project? it conforms? Approved”

    Done and done.

    Sure, clean up the mess. Now.

    But simultaneously remove the ridiculous buck passing, overly democratic, neighbors get to invent new meanings of light and air type NIMBY crud that has hobbled San Francisco building.

    Walk and chew gum.

    1. “You’ve got a project? it conforms? Approved”

      We’re talking about inspections. “it conforms” is rarely ever fully determined, all they do are spot checks. An inspector can adjust the depth of their investigation and effectively influence whether or not a project passes. That prerogative invites corruption.

          1. I don’t follow. You submit the plans. If they are to code, they are approved. Subsequently inspections take place in stages throughout the build. That’s how it should function.

          2. Sorry, I should have been more verbose. This article is about corruption in the DBI. You made the point that an onerous process invites corruption. I don’t doubt that, but inspections limited to just the well defined national and local codes are subjective despite the reference regulations being very objective. Those codes are enormously detailed and the DBI doesn’t have much input to adjust or simplify code.

            No inspector checks every detail. Each inspector has the choice of how shallow or how deep to go. Inspectors can choose to go shallow or overlook expensive mistakes for their preferred permit holders, and therein lies the opportunity for graft: making the inspection less onerous by intentionally finding fewer problems. Dishonest inspectors can also do the reverse by doing a full cavity search on projects not willing to pay to play.

            Alternatively honest, pragmatic inspectors spot check to an “incomplete” level of detail consistently for all projects. While also not a full inspection, at least it is fair and practical.

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