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Ex-San Francisco official gets 2.5 years in prison for stealing $1.5M, other crimes

Rodrigo Santos exits the Phillip Burton Federal Building courts after his sentencing in San Francisco on Friday. | Source: Michael Barba/ The Standard

A former San Francisco official whose admittedly “clownish deceptions” made him the target of an FBI investigation for stealing a purported $1.5 million in checks and helping to corrupt a building inspector was sentenced to prison Friday.

Rodrigo Santos will serve two-and-a-half years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud and tax evasion charges stemming from the stolen checks, as well as payments he arranged to influence former inspector Bernie Curran, Senior U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ruled.

“You had everything going for you, but I find the offenses that are set out here to be very, very serious and very destructive,” Illston told Santos.

Illston handed down the sentence after Santos delivered a lengthy and impassioned speech in court, asking for a second chance. He said he has worked every moment for the last three years to undo his crimes, and would dedicate himself to educating young people in San Francisco who wanted to be engineers.

“I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t drive. I just work," Santos said. "Your honor, I can contribute to the city."

An attorney for Santos wanted Illston to sentence him to a year and a day in prison, while the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked the judge to sentence him to 51 months behind bars, or more than four years.

Santos, 65, was a prominent local engineer who co-founded the firm Santos and Urrutia Structural Engineers in the late 1980s. In 2000, he was appointed to the Building Inspection Commission by then-Mayor Willie Brown and later served as its president. In 2012, he briefly served on the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees under Mayor Ed Lee.

It was around this time that federal prosecutors said he began stealing checks from his clients that were not meant for him.

From November 2012 until March 2019, prosecutors said Santos told his clients to write checks—often to the Department of Building Inspection—to pay for fees linked to their building projects. But those fees were nonexistent. Santos instead deposited $775,000 from about 200 clients into his personal bank account. 

At least one such check deposited into his bank account, made out to “DBI,” was altered to read “RoDBIgo Santos,” court records show.

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

Santos arrived at court wearing a dark suit and Salesforce-branded backpack, with a bicycle helmet dangling behind him. He does not own a car and bikes everywhere from his home in Noe Valley, his attorney said.

A man walks with two woman on the street.
Rodrigo Santos walks out of the court at the Phillip Burton Federal Building after his sentencing in San Francisco on Friday. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Despite the occasion, Santos appeared to be in good spirits ahead of the hearing, mingling with a dozen or so supporters in the hallway. While the judge weighed his possible sentence, Santos kept his head down, with his arms clasped behind him.

Illston heard from Santos and nine of his supporters before coming to her decision. The supporters included personal friends, family and clients who said that the criminality was completely out of character for Santos. They said they knew Santos as a mentor who helped people not for money, but out of kindness.

Kevin O'Connor was one of the clients Santos stole checks from. He said he hired Santos because of his good reputation and was shocked to learn what happened. Despite that, he came to court and asked Illston to go easy on Santos.

“Even though it may be due and legal punishment, it really serves no one," O'Connor said. "It only adds to more anguish."

Randy Knox, Santos' attorney, said Santos took money from people who could afford it, and worked for free for those who couldn't.

"Rodrigo Santos is not Robin Hood, but he is not Bernie Madoff," Knox told the court. “Rodrigo Santos is a good man who did bad things.”

But Casey Boome, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, disputed any notion that the conduct was "out of character" for Santos.

"We are talking about eight years, 823 checks, $1.6 million over that period of time," Boome told the court. "With this many fraud schemes, this was his character.”

Santos did not just steal from his clients.

Prosecutors said he also deposited checks meant for his firm into his personal bank account, stealing nearly $720,000 from his business partner.

He did not report the income to the IRS, prosecutors said.

Santos has begun repaying the money he stole from his clients. In court filings, his attorney said he has repaid more than $300,000 to his clients and put $150,000 into an account that is expected to be distributed to his victims. Santos has also made his partner "whole," his attorney said in court.

Separate from his thefts, Santos was charged for arranging payments from his clients to benefit Curran, the building inspector, in a corruption scheme.

From 2017 to 2020, prosecutors said Santos asked his clients to donate to a youth rugby nonprofit favored by Curran, while he asked Curran to inspect their properties. In one case, prosecutors said, Curran signed off on an approval for a project whose sponsor donated $500 to the nonprofit, despite the property lacking a required fire sprinkler system.

In total, 13 clients wrote 14 checks to the Golden Gate Rugby Association nonprofit worth $9,600, prosecutors said. Curran inspected the properties or issued approvals for all of them.

Curran was separately charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and sentenced to a year and a day in prison last month after pleading guilty to two counts of accepting illegal reward payments. His attorneys maintained that Curran “never issued a building permit that was not warranted.”

Curran faces a state case over unrelated payments that is still pending.

Santos is due to surrender to authorities Dec. 1.