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Ex-building inspector, engineer must pay San Francisco $236K after corrupt scheme

Two men in suits exit a courthouse front door.
Bernie Curran, left, and Rodrigo Santos, right, leave hearings at federal court in San Francisco. | Source: The Standard

Two key figures in San Francisco’s City Hall corruption scandal must pay the city nearly $236,000 to cover the costs of an audit launched in response to their misdeeds, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.

The order, from U.S. Senior District Judge Susan Illston, fell far short of the nearly $1.9 million that the U.S. Attorney’s Office originally asked her to collect from former building inspector Bernie Curran and engineer Rodrigo Santos.

Curran and Santos have each pleaded guilty in connection with various schemes, including one in which Santos asked his clients to donate to a youth rugby nonprofit favored by Curran so that he would inspect their properties. The donations totaled $9,600 from 13 clients between 2017 and 2020.

The restitution payments ordered by Illston are expected to cover costs associated with an audit launched by the Department of Building Inspection into more than 5,000 properties touched by Curran, Santos or both of the men over the years. The audit is meant to double-check work done by Curran and Santos on projects to make sure that they are safe and up to code.

As of late last month, auditors had reviewed 1,462 properties—about a quarter of all projects set to be reviewed—and found that 313 of them required additional review, court records show. Auditors had inspected 30 properties and issued notices of violation at 25 of them.

The ruling came after Illston said at a hearing last month that she was troubled by the massive sum requested by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and expressed concerns that the city audit was overly broad.

“The actions of the defendants in this case were criminal and were egregious,” Illston said. “It appears to me, however, that by the luck of the draw, the particular bad things done by Mr. Curran and also by Mr. Santos didn’t cause all that much harm.”

Santos, a structural engineer who once served as president of the Building Inspection Commission, wanted to pay just $4,067 for the costs of auditing the 13 projects linked to people who made the nonprofit donations. That is far from the nearly $853,000 that prosecutors initially believed he owed the city for past and future audit costs. He was instead ordered to pay about $95,000.

“I’m disappointed, and I disagree, but I understand the judge’s rationale,” Randy Knox, Santos’ attorney, told The Standard. “It is significantly less than the government wanted. It’s more than I thought was appropriate.”

Curran, who resigned from his city job in 2021 after he was placed on leave, must pay his former employer about $122,000 for the costs of the audit. Prosecutors originally said he should be on the hook for roughly $1 million.

Curran’s attorneys, in court filings, called the initial figure “obscene” and questioned the point of the audit, arguing that it had not identified many problems. An attorney for Curran did not respond to an inquiry Tuesday.

Curran and Santos will also have to split the costs of about $18,000 that they were jointly ordered to pay the city.

The Department of Building Inspection, which is conducting the audit and requested the payments, commended the judge’s order.

“This is an important win for San Francisco, its residents and taxpayers,” said its spokesperson, Patrick Hannan. “The City is being repaid for the cost of ensuring that these illegal schemes did not put people’s lives at risk.”

“We will continue to do all we can to hold fully accountable anyone who violates the public trust,” he added.

Curran is currently serving a yearlong prison sentence. Santos was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to surrender Friday, but is asking Illston to let him remain out of custody until March.

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com