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San Francisco corruption: Ex-official admits to ‘clownish deceptions’

Rodrigo Santos, an engineer and former San Francisco city official, is expected to be sentenced in federal court after pleading guilty to fraud and tax evasion charges. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images | Source: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Once a successful civil engineer tapped by two San Francisco mayors to fill top positions in local government, Rodrigo Santos was humbled by an FBI investigation that exposed him as a liar and cheat.

Now Santos is asking a judge for leniency as he awaits sentencing for pocketing checks that were meant for others and for arranging payments intended to influence a building inspector.

In a letter to Senior District Judge Susan Illston, who will hand down a sentence next Friday, a remorseful Santos acknowledged the damage caused by his “unlawful and sometimes clownish deceptions.

“After achieving all the success anyone could ask for, I threw it all away by lying, cheating and engaging in unethical activities,” Santos wrote. “I took money from my clients that didn’t rightfully belong to me and tampered with documents in an attempt to cover up my wrongdoings.

“I humbly ask for leniency,” he added.

Santos, 65, pleaded guilty in January to bank fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion charges in three separate cases stemming from the checks he misappropriated and the donations he asked his clients to make to a youth sports charity favored by Bernie Curran, who was at the time a senior building inspector.

Curran was also charged in connection with the donations scheme. Last month, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for accepting illegal gratuities, and he still has a separate state case pending. Both Curran and Santos are among more than a dozen city officials, contractors and businesspeople who were caught up in a wide-sweeping corruption scandal that continues to unfold around San Francisco City Hall.

Santos admitted that he “diverted” over 400 checks from his clients from 2012 to 2019, which were often meant for the Department of Building Inspection, and misappropriated more than 300 checks intended for his firm, Santos and Urrutia Structural Engineers, his attorney Randy Knox wrote in a Thursday court filing.

The money taken from his clients amounted to more than $750,000, of which Santos has repaid more than $300,000, according to his attorney. He has also paid an additional $150,000 into an account that is expected to be distributed to his victims by federal authorities.

Infamously, prosecutors included an image of one of the altered checks for the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) in which the “pay to the order of” line was manipulated to read, “RoDBIgo Santos.”

A copy of a manipulated check made out to “RoDBIgo Santos” is seen in court records filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

As for the donations scheme, Knox said that 13 clients wrote checks totaling more than $9,600 to the nonprofit, the San Francisco Golden Gate Rugby Association (SFGGR), that were intended to influence Curran.

Those donations were arranged between 2017 and 2020, prosecutors said.

However, Knox wrote in his filing that Santos “considered Curran’s approvals proper and any variance with permit requirements minor.”

“Although he sought favorable treatment from DBI Senior Inspector Curran, the client donations to SFGGR were designed primarily to convey the appearance of undue influence to the clients,” Knox said.

In 2012, Santos briefly served as an appointee of then-Mayor Ed Lee on the City College Board of Trustees before losing an election. Prior to that, he was appointed by then-Mayor Willie Brown to the Building Inspection Commission in 2000 and later elected president of the panel in 2004.

Santos came from a privileged family in Ecuador, he said in his letter to the court, and after coming to the United States, he co-founded Santos and Urrutia in the late 1980s. His siblings have held top national posts in the Ecuadorian government, including one brother who currently serves as the Ecuadorian secretary of energy, Santos wrote in his letter to Illston.

As Santos awaits his sentencing, his attorney sent the judge dozens of letters of support for Santos, including from some of his client victims, colleagues in the industry and family.

Knox asked the judge to sentence Santos to one year and a day in prison.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has not yet submitted its sentencing memorandum recommending a sentence for Santos.