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San Francisco homeowners say they were duped into paying a now-disgraced building inspector

An illustration depicts former inspector Bernie Curran, center, and four San Francisco properties owned by people who paid him, including a local developer who gave him a loan. | Source: Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard

In late 2018, Manh Chau was renovating his dream house in San Francisco’s Ingleside Terraces, an idyllic refuge near the southern end of the city, when his contractor asked him to cut a check for $5,000.

Chau, who ran a shop selling glass for windows and doors, met his contractor, Kelvin Zeng, through work and had come to trust him as a friend, his attorney said. So he listened when Zeng told him to write the name “Bernie Curran” on the check, according to an interview Chau gave to investigators with the District Attorney’s Office.

What Chau did not know at the time, he told investigators, was that Bernie Curran was not a subcontractor hired to give his home a face-lift, as he had assumed.

Curran was a senior building inspector with more than a decade of experience working for the city who, just a day after Chau dated the check, inspected the house on Corona Street, court records show.

Five years later, Curran is about to begin a stint in federal prison after pleading guilty in two separate criminal cases in federal and state court over his financial ties to various property owners in the city.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Chau said in a brief phone call with The Standard this month after a reporter knocked on his door. “But my contractor, he [wanted] me to [write] him the check.”

Manh Chau's house on Corona Street in the Ingleside Terraces neighborhood is seen from the sidewalk on Oct. 3. | Source: Michael Barba/The Standard

Zeng, the CEO of a company called Mutual Seiko Construction, declined to speak with The Standard when reached by phone.

Zeng and his company are listed as the contractor on 249 different building permits dating back to 2000, building inspection records show, including on a project as recent as August.

Chau was one of several property owners in San Francisco who cut a collective $32,000 in checks that were ultimately deposited into Curran’s bank accounts between 2018 and 2019, around the same times that Curran inspected properties they owned.

The payments, detailed here for the first time based on court records obtained by The Standard, have gone largely unnoticed by the public despite being part of one of the cases against Curran.

READ MORE: Who Is the ‘Immensely Wealthy’ Developer Tied to San Francisco’s Corruption Scandal?

The District Attorney’s Office accused Curran of having a financial interest in inspections he approved at the properties within a year after receiving $27,000 of the payments—a misdemeanor under San Francisco law. Curran also faced felony perjury charges for not disclosing the payments in his annual financial statements.

When confronted by investigators with the District Attorney’s Office, court records show none of the property owners who cut the checks said they knew who Curran was. Rather, they all said they were directed to write them by either Zeng or another man, Zhenchao Liu, who was believed to be working with a Daly City construction firm.

Curran, who joined the Department of Building Inspection in 2005, was known as one the busiest building inspectors in San Francisco before he resigned in 2021 amid questions about a $180,000 loan he took from a developer whose properties he inspected. His former bosses have said he performed as many as 20 inspections a day. Court records show he often left his assigned district to perform these inspections on the same day they were requested.

Curran fell into financial distress after a divorce from his wife and a cancer diagnosis set him back. His attorneys maintained that he never “approved a permit” that he shouldn’t have.

His criminality brought to light a need for more oversight within the Department of Building Inspection that the agency has since taken steps to address, including by tracking when inspectors leave their assigned district or perform “same-day inspections.”

Curran was charged by the District Attorney’s Office in 2022 over the payments from the homeowners as well as the loan from the local developer. He pleaded guilty to two of the counts last month for taking and failing to disclose the loan. Prosecutors dismissed the other counts in exchange for his guilty pleas.

Curran was sentenced to two years in prison, which he is expected to serve at the same time he is in federal prison as a result of a separate case brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He admitted in that case to receiving $30,000 in loan forgiveness from an “immensely wealthy” San Francisco developer and to welcoming donations to his son’s rugby club from people who wanted him to perform inspections.

He was ordered to surrender by Nov. 3.

Bernie Curran, a former senior building inspector, leaves federal court after his sentencing in San Francisco on July 14. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Philip Kearney, an attorney for Curran, said that the payments Curran received from the property owners in the state case were “absolutely not related to his work as a building inspector.” He did not offer another explanation as to why Curran accepted the money.

The District Attorney’s Office did not accuse the homeowners or their contractors of wrongdoing. However, the homes are among the thousands of properties that are now under review by the Department of Building Inspection simply because they were inspected by Curran.

The audit seeks to find out whether the work Curran inspected is actually safe and up to code, according to Patrick Hannan, a spokesperson for the Department of Building Inspection. While Hannan said the audit had found work that was done “without permits and without proper inspection” at 11 of the properties so far, he said none of those issues raised “imminent life-safety hazards.”

Auditors have not yet reviewed the Ingleside Terraces and Sunset properties of those who made payments to Curran, Hannan said.

“The audit is ongoing, and based on what we’ve found to date, we believe it’s likely that additional issues will be uncovered,” he said.

A ‘Loan for a Friend’

Wei Jun Li was the property owner who paid Curran the most money out of the bunch, writing three checks totaling $17,000 in 2018 and 2019 that were deposited into Curran’s bank accounts, according to court records.

Li told investigators that he wrote two of the checks totaling $12,000 because his friend, the contractor Zeng, said he needed a “loan for a friend.”

Although the checks were ultimately addressed to Curran and deposited into his bank accounts, Li told the office he did not write Curran’s name on them. He said he gave the checks to Zeng.

Court records show that Curran inspected a property on Ortega Street that was co-owned by Zeng and Li in early 2020 and inspected a property on 35th Avenue owned by Li three times between 2016 and 2017.

Attempts to reach Li at home and by phone were not successful.

How Zeng knew Curran is not clear, but he told investigators that he had known him for a long time.

For ‘His Helpers’

Unlike Chau and Li, property owners Henry and Elsa Wong did not point a finger at Zeng when asked why they paid Curran.

Henry Wong told the District Attorney’s Office that he and his wife hired a Daly City company, Y R C Construction, to remodel a house his family owned on 42nd Avenue, court records show.

Henry Wong said his point of contact for the company, Liu, asked him for $10,000 in April 2019 for “his helpers.” He told investigators that he and his wife cut two $5,000 checks at Liu’s request. Liu told him not to fill in the name of a payee in one check and to address the other to “Mr. Bernie,” he said.

Henry Wong said he did not know who Curran was and that Liu wrote Curran’s name for him on a piece of paper late one night.

Investigators found that Curran approved inspections on the property just a day before the couple cut the checks and again months later.

Attempts to reach the Wongs and Liu at their homes and by phone were not successful.

The company that the owners believed Liu was working with, Y R C Construction, denied employing Liu or working on the property.

“I didn’t hire the guy,” said Wayne Huang, who owns the firm.

Huang said he runs a one-man shop and that his contractor’s license may have been stolen.

Building inspection records show that a statement declaring Haung was the licensed contractor for the work was signed in his name. Shown the document, Huang said he thought it was a forgery.

“I think someone [stole] my signature,” Huang said.

Hannan, the city spokesperson, said the Department of Building Inspection was not immediately aware of any “notable issues” in the past involving Zeng, Liu, Mutual Seiko Construction or Y R C Construction.

Hannan said the department has “implemented a series of operational improvements and safeguards to prevent situations like this from happening again.”