Not too long ago, the San Francisco Coalition for Responsible Growth announced its plans to "put an end to the ideological approach that exists in City Hall" by defeating progressive candidates for supervisor next month. The pro-development political action committee has already been throwing its weight around: In the District 11 race, it spent $14,700 earlier this month for a hit piece mailer on candidate John Avalos, a former aide to controversial Supervisor Chris Daly.
But while the Coalition for Responsible Growth wages its campaign to attack certain candidates as unfit for office, questions are being raised about Rodrigo Santos, the coalition's Republican president.
Four years ago, when Santos was president of the Building Inspection Commission, he was interviewed by the FBI as part of its corruption investigation of the Department of Building Inspection (DBI). Building official Augustine "Gus" Fallay was eventually charged with soliciting bribes from onetime contractor Tony Fu. Fallay was later acquitted, but the case exposed other questionable dealings in the DBI — some of which apparently involved Santos.
In 2003, Santos agreed to have his company, Santos and Urrutia, Inc. Structural Engineers, prepare architectural drawings for a residential property at 337 28th Avenue owned by Crystal Lei, Fu's ex-wife. Lei asked Santos to prepare the drawings as part of her effort to persuade his colleagues on the commission and Building Inspection Department officials to reverse numerous citations for unpermitted work, reinstate her building permits, and lift four stop-work orders that had halted her remodel for seven months.
Despite his business relationship with Lei, Santos did not recuse himself when her case was before the commission, claiming there was no conflict of interest because he had prepared the drawings for free. But SF Weekly has obtained copies of two personal checks totaling $2,500 that Lei wrote to Santos when the drawings were prepared. One, for $500, was made out to Santos and Urrutia; the other, for $2,000, was made out to Santos as an individual.
Even though the commission ultimately did not vote on Lei's case, her payments to Santos may still mean he violated the state Political Reform Act, which requires commissioners and elected officials to recuse themselves from even discussing issues in which they have a business interest.
On at least two occasions, Santos insisted he had accepted no money from Lei. In a March 2004 memo to the Building Inspection Commission, he wrote emphatically that "no money has exchanged hands"; he also stated this during a 2005 interview with federal agents after Fallay's arrest, an FBI report from the time shows.
When SF Weekly presented Santos with the checks, he admitted accepting them, but claimed the $2,500 went to a draftsman whom he had hired to enable Santos to do a structural analysis of Lei's property. She "had to compensate our architectural draftsman," he says. "Normally we would have charged $15,000 for that work."
Santos says he could not remember offhand which architectural firm did the drawings.
But even if Santos passed the $2,500 along, it was bad form to accept money from someone who had business before his commission, according to John St. Croix, the director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission.
"The best case is, it shows bad judgment," says St. Croix, who was unfamiliar with the specifics of the transaction. "Anytime you accept more than $500, it creates a conflict of interest."
City Attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey says his office only recently learned of the checks and would not comment beyond that, stating that it is the policy of the City Attorney's Office to not comment on ongoing investigations or even confirm whether there is a current investigation.
Santos seems unperturbed by the controversy and says he now wishes he hadn't tried to help Lei. "I tried to help Ms. Lei because she was so certain that she was being treated unfairly," he says. "This is just another case of no good deed goes unpunished."