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San Francisco corruption: Ex-building inspector Bernie Curran gets 1-year prison sentence

Bernie Curran exits the federal courthouse after his sentencing. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

A disgraced former San Francisco building inspector was sentenced to a year and a day in prison Friday for accepting illegal reward payments from people whose properties he was inspecting.

Senior District Judge Susan Illston handed down the sentence for Bernie Curran after rejecting his request to instead serve home detention, saying that not giving him time in prison would be viewed as a “slap on the wrist.”

“I think that you are a good man,” Illston told Curran. “But I also believe that this kind of conduct is very, very detrimental to the city, to the citizens of the city and to the government in general, particularly in the complicated times in which we live. I think it is very important for public officials to conduct themselves in accordance with the rules.

“And this was completely not in accordance with the rules,” she added.

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Curran pleaded guilty to two counts of accepting illegal reward payments in December over two schemes. One of them involved a $260,000 loan he accepted from an unnamed developer whose properties he regularly inspected, while the other involved donations to his favored youth sports nonprofit by people who wanted him to inspect their properties.

Curran, 62, resigned from his longtime post as a senior building inspector with the Department of Building Inspection in June 2021 while under investigation by the city. That August, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed fraud charges against him and politically connected structural engineer Rodrigo Santos, who arranged the nonprofit donations for Curran from his clients.

Both Curran and Santos were caught up in a larger FBI investigation into corruption at City Hall that entangled more than a dozen other city officials, contractors and businesspeople, beginning with the arrest of former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru in early 2020.

Illston decided on the sentence after weighing a recommended 15 to 21 months in prison. Prosecutors wanted Curran to spend 18 months behind bars, while Curran asked for 10 months of home detention.

Prosecutors also want Curran to pay roughly $1 million in restitution to the city for an audit that his former department is conducting of more than 5,000 properties touched by either Curran or Santos or both men.

While defense attorney Philip Kearney called the $1 million figure “unsupported, unwarranted and unfair,” Illston said she would decide on the restitution he may owe on another day.

Before the hearing, Curran walked down the hallway with his attorneys to a crowd of supporters waiting outside the courtroom, giving them hugs. Among those who showed were his daughter and Ed Sweeney, the former DBI deputy director who described Curran as a “model employee” in a letter to the judge.

In court filings, Curran’s attorneys described him as a “good man who made a mistake.” They argued that he may have received among the “smaller dollar benefits” of any person charged in the corruption scandal.

“Bernard Curran apologizes to the people of San Francisco, to this Court, and to his family and friends for violating the public trust,” his attorney, Kearney, wrote in a filing asking for leniency. “He regrets accepting illegal gratuities … and knows his conduct was inexcusable.”

At the same time, Kearney said Curran “steadfastly contends that he has never issued a building permit that was not warranted.”

But prosecutors said in court filings that the federal investigation “uncovered evidence to the contrary.”

Curran accepted the $260,000 loan from a developer, referred to in court records only as “Developer-1,” to pay down his mortgage, prosecutors said. The developer later agreed to forgive about $30,000 of his loan.

Curran admitted in his plea deal that the developer forgave part of the loan both because they were friends and “in connection with and as a reward for conducting past and future inspections on Developer-1’s building projects,” according to prosecutors. He inspected several projects linked to the developer between March 2016 and November 2020.

Curran granted an approval for one of those projects in the 700 block of Harrison Street in August 2018 despite the project having unresolved building code violations, prosecutors said. That happened just months after the developer forgave the $30,000.

In May 2021, Curran filed a financial disclosure form with the city that said he accepted a loan worth more than $100,000 from a property owner named Freydoon Ghassemzadeh in 2017. Property records show that Curran borrowed $180,000 from Ghassemzadeh that year.

However, prosecutors said in court records that the filing was an effort to “deceive investigators” and conceal the true source of the money.

“Curran submitted a financial disclosure form to the City of San Francisco falsely certifying that the money that he had received from Developer-1 was instead a 6% interest loan from a relative of Developer-1,” prosecutors wrote.

Separately, defense attorneys said that Developer-1 was a longtime personal friend of Curran’s, who hired Curran’s daughter to work in his office.

In a letter filed in court records by the defense, Curran’s daughter Siofra Curran said she worked for the family of Sia Tahbazof at a company called Atlas Property Group Inc. in San Francisco.

Tahbazof’s family also runs a prominent engineering firm called SIA Consulting. It’s unclear whether Tahbazof and Ghassemzadeh are related, but records show Ghassemzadeh’s son has worked at SIA Consulting.

“I have worked for the Tahbazof family for almost 7 years now,” Siofra Curran wrote. “My father and Sia Tahbazof had been friends since before I was born, and my father asked Sia if he would allow me to work part-time for them while I was in high school.

“I am appreciative of the opportunities the entire Tahbazof family has given me and I continue to have a wonderful working relationship with them,” she added.

Tahbazof did not respond to messages seeking comment by publication time.

Attempts to reach Ghassemzadeh by phone and email were unsuccessful.

At the sentencing for Curran, prosecutor Casey Boome hinted that Developer-1 may soon face criminal charges for his role in the scheme.

"This is Mr. Curran's day in court," Boome said. "Developer-1 will have his day in court."

Curran was ordered to surrender to authorities by Oct. 12.

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com