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Rich San Francisco developer accused of paying bribes pleads not guilty

Two men walk into the federal building.
Bahman Ghassemzadeh, left, and Sia Tahbazof, right, arrive at the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Friday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

A prominent San Francisco real estate developer pleaded not guilty Friday to a federal fraud charge for allegedly bribing employees at the Department of Building Inspection in a new chapter of the city’s corruption scandal.

Sia Tahbazof, 72, appeared in federal court for the first time after the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed fraud charges Nov. 9 against him and two of his associates, Bahman Ghassemzadeh and Reza Khoshnevisan, over the alleged bribes.

Ghassemzadeh, who is Tahbazof’s nephew, also pleaded not guilty Friday morning at his initial appearance in the same courtroom as Tahbazof. Khoshnevisan is scheduled to appear in court for the first time Monday.

The charges against them mark an inflection point in a long-running scandal that came into public view when an FBI investigation spurred the arrest of then-Public Works head Mohammed Nuru in early 2020 and toppled the director of the long-troubled Department of Building Inspection, Tom Hui.

More than a dozen city officials and businesspeople have since faced charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, including a former city building inspector and two former plan checkers implicated in the latest round of charges. While Hui has not been charged, Nuru is currently serving a federal prison sentence.

Tahbazof is the politically connected founder of the architectural design firm SIA Consulting and development company SST Investment. He and Khoshnevisan, 54, co-own SIA Consulting, which has been involved in myriad construction projects in San Francisco going back decades.

Ghassemzadeh, 39, was an engineer for SIA Consulting. He was appointed to a city panel, the Board of Examiners, by the Building Inspection Commission in 2018 and served until he resigned as his ties to the scandal began to emerge in 2021.

Tahbazof and Ghassemzadeh, who are both out of custody, sat together in the gallery and watched a parade of defendants in jail jumpsuits have their day in court before their cases were called. Ghassemzadeh hunched forward in his seat.

Tahbazof's wife, Sami Tahbazof, watched as her husband stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim, who had to repeat herself because Tahbazof is hard of hearing. Tahbazof's attorney later declined to comment.

A man and woman arrive at a courthouse.
Bahman Ghassemzadeh, left, and his attorney, Gail Shifman, right, arrive at the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Friday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Tahbazof’s alleged bribery spanned from at least 2003 until February 2021.

Tahbazof and Ghassemzadeh allegedly paid $1,500 per inspection for a senior building inspector, Bernie Curran, to approve inspections on their projects over the years. Prosecutors said Tahbazof paid Curran about $30,000 for these inspections beginning in 2008. Ghassemzadeh allegedly began paying Curran through Tahbazof for his projects in 2014.

Tahbazof also allegedly forgave $30,000 of a $260,000 loan that he provided to Curran.

Without naming Tahbazof, federal prosecutors said in an earlier case against Curran that a developer routed him the loan through several of relatives, including Curran’s mother, to conceal the source of the money.

The money flowed from SST Investments through accounts belonging to Tabhazof’s brother-in-law, Freydoon Ghassemzadeh, and Curran’s mother before reaching Curran, according to court records obtained by The Standard from a state case filed by the District Attorney’s Office against Curran.

Curran is currently serving a federal prison sentence and no longer works for the city.

Bahman Ghassemzadeh’s father, Freydoon Ghassemzadeh, also recorded a deed of trust with Curran showing Curran owed him $180,000, property records show. But federal prosecutors said that a loan matching its description was a work of fiction, recorded to obscure the true source of money.

Tahbazof and Bahman Ghassemzadeh are accused of paying bribes to plan checkers at the building inspection department, Rudy Pada and Cyril Yu, who no longer work for the city.

Prosecutors said they gave those bribes, including cash, drinks and meals, in exchange for Pada and Yu issuing building permits.

Khoshnevisan also allegedly paid bribes to Pada and was aware of bribes that Tahbazof and Bahman Ghassemzadeh paid Yu to approve their permits.

In addition to cash and meals, prosecutors said Tahbazof provided Pada with an $85,000 interest-free loan. Property records show Pada received an $85,000 loan from Freydoon Ghassemzadeh around the same time that Pada is accused of receiving the loan in December 2013.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed fraud charges Nov. 2 against Pada and Yu over the payments. While both men have pleaded not guilty, Pada is expected to appear in court in early December to change his plea.

Tahbazof, Bahman Ghassemzadeh and Khoshnevisan are each facing one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud. If convicted, they face maximum prison sentences of 20 years and fines of up to $250,000.

Tahbazof and Ghassemzadeh are expected to remain out of custody on a $25,000 bond each as their cases move forward.

They are both due to return to court in January.