Luke Brugnara, San Francisco's most bombastic and, perhaps, pugnacious commercial landlord, looks around the Department of Public Health's shoddily painted, poorly lit hearing room, which is lightly peppered with government workers in wrinkle-free pants and cheap shirts, and doesn't bother masking his disgust. He is sitting on a generic wooden meeting-hall bench, waiting to confront bureaucrats who have filed a complaint against him, claiming he has too much ivy growing on and around his home in tony St. Francis Wood. He's not exactly waiting patiently; Brugnara is asked to quiet down when he utters the phrase "What a fucking disgrace" a little too loudly while watching a representative of a Chevy's restaurant deal with complaints about a leaky pipe.
Once Brugnara's name is called, he stalks to the podium like a boxer leaving his corner. He's wearing his standard outfit for conducting business: a pair of navy blue sweat pants, a red long-sleeved polo shirt, and a Ralph Lauren barn jacket zipped tight around his barrel-chested torso. After a brief attempt to explain that most of the properties in his neighborhood have dense shrubbery, followed by a few harsh exchanges with the Health Department bureaucrat hearing the complaint, Brugnara decides to explain exactly where he stands.
"Quite frankly, my time is more valuable than yours, and I see this as being harassed," he says. "I own many office buildings in downtown San Francisco, and for me to be brought down here to talk about plants is ridiculous."
"You can argue all you want, Mr. Brugnara," says the bureaucrat, "but all we want you to do is maintain it in a reasonable manner. And looking at these pictures of your property, this constitutes overgrowth vegetation."
Brugnara is shown a picture of his home, which has thick ivy balled up on its roof and extending out to -- but not obstructing -- the sidewalk. The photo probably wasn't clipped from Better Homes & Gardens, but the house isn't exactly untended either.
"What constitutes overgrowth vegetation?" he asks testily.
"[The ivy] is climbing up your neighbor's wall."
"Sir, I own that building, too. It's my private property."
The bureaucrat seems a little unnerved by this revelation but sticks to his guns, telling Brugnara the ivy constitutes a potential "rodent harbor."
It is a poor choice of words.
Luke Brugnara has blown up in public arenas far more hallowed than this. He has seriously berated Nevada's all-powerful Gaming Control Board while asking it for a casino license. He has earned not one but two restraining orders based on his allegedly abusive behavior inside courthouses. So suggesting to Brugnara that he lives in a multimillion-dollar rattrap probably isn't wise, if one intends to run a civil hearing in a public place.
"So I can be cited for potential rodents?" Brugnara asks, the volume of his voice rising markedly. "I live there. I can assure you there aren't any rodents. You can't tell me what part of the code that violates? What it [the code] says is that it's [harboring] rodents, and it's not."
"We can argue all you want this morning, Mr. Brugnara. If you want to talk to an attorney that's fine with me."
"What are you suggesting I do?"
"I can't make recommendations. We'll have an investigator work with your gardener."
"My time is very valuable, and I want to know what I have to do to keep you people from harassing me. The purpose of this hearing is to satisfy you," Brugnara says, red-faced now and uncomfortably loud, leaning toward the squirming bureaucrat. "And I want to know what I have to do to satisfy you. ... I don't back down to any bureaucracy unless it's backed up by law and backed up by truth, and right now, you're just harassing me as a taxpayer. I pay your salary! Do you know that? I pay over a million dollars of taxes a year on my property. Are you aware of that?"
"You are going to be escorted out of here right now," the bureaucrat says.
"I don't need to be escorted," says Brugnara, turning his back to the bureaucrat and to an approaching police officer. "I'll walk."
A few minutes later, driving his blue Mercedes sedan toward one of his two downtown San Francisco office buildings, Luke Brugnara explains the performance at the Health Department: "I shouldn't have been down there at all today. So I was just going to go down there and make that guy's life miserable today.
"And that's what I succeeded in doing."
These days, Brugnara -- a self-made commercial real estate mogul who, by his mid-30s, had acquired a fortune he estimates at $200 million -- often seems at least as interested in making his point as he is in making money in commercial property. He had the foresight to sell off much of his downtown portfolio before the post-dot-com collapse of the office space market began, investing the proceeds in better-regarded Financial District properties, a 200-acre parcel of South Bay wilderness, and, most significant to him, a Las Vegas casino.
The casino, which he plans to turn into a grand, San Francisco-themed resort, is at the center of Brugnara's development plans. It also embodies one of the biggest points he wants to make.
In March, Nevada's Gaming Control Board rejected Brugnara's request for a gaming license, raising concerns about his license application, accounting practices, and character. Among other things, it was noted that he had allegedly threatened violence against a former mistress, a deputy city attorney, and a court-appointed receiver -- and then did not list those incidents on his gaming license application. Brugnara responded with nearly pyrotechnic anger, accusing the commissioners of being controlled by a cartel of insiders and threatening to sue.
Now, Brugnara is reapplying for his gaming license, apparently in the same spirit that took him to the Health Department. He's consulting with an attorney he considers one of the masters of misery-for-point-making's sake, renowned San Francisco barrister Joe Alioto, who is weighing the merits of filing an antitrust lawsuit against Las Vegas' gaming interests.