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He helps contractors land building permits. Then his nephews do the inspections

A collage with a man's portrait, construction site, crane and building permits.
An illustration depicts Frank Chiu, left, who served as the Department of Building Inspection director from 1996 to 2004, and his nephew, Chester Chiu, right, who is currently a building inspector. | Source: Illustration by Clark Miller/The Standard

Frank Chiu walked away from his job as San Francisco’s first director of the Department of Building Inspection nearly 20 years ago.

Since then, he has worked as a permit consultant on construction projects that his brother—and two nephews—later inspected in their roles as city building inspectors, raising concerns about potential conflicts of interest in a department that has been dogged by ethical issues.

Chiu, 66, and his son, Chris, work with contractors and architects who renovate offices in downtown high-rises. He helps them save time and money by ensuring that their building plans comply with the city’s notoriously complex codes. Chiu says his job getting the permits is done by the time his family members inspect the construction work on the projects. But outside observers say the situation creates at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“The major problem with the relationship among the relatives is we can't know if the public interest is actually being attended to as opposed to the private and perhaps the financial interest of the [consultant],” said John Pelissero, director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Since the beginning of 2021, Chiu has disclosed receiving $53,000 from three different companies for his work as a consultant on permits or at building addresses that his relatives inspected, according to city ethics filings and building inspection records reviewed by The Standard.

In total, The Standard identified 37 inspections that Chiu’s nephews and brother conducted over the past 11 years on permits that he or his son, who works with him, touched as permit consultants. The most recent inspection, by his nephew Chester Chiu, was in January.

A close-up of a document with a company name and a signature.
The Standard obtained Department of Building Inspection records that showed Frank Chiu signed paperwork on permits his nephews inspected. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

In one case several years ago, Frank Chiu spoke directly to one of his nephews, now acting Senior Building Inspector Jonathan Chiu, on a conference call about issues the nephew identified during an inspection, according to a Department of Building Inspection spokesperson.

“Jonathan only provided clarification on what was required to resolve the issue, which is what inspectors regularly do as part of their normal duties,” said the spokesperson, Patrick Hannan.

Jonathan was unaware that his uncle was involved in the project prior to that conference call. However, he did later inspect the work on that same project after learning that his uncle was involved, according to Hannan.

Both Jonathan and Chester Chiu have otherwise never talked to their uncle about a building permit or known that he was working on a project that they were inspecting, Hannan said.

That conference call didn’t violate city policy, Hannan said. Nor did any of the inspections that Jonathan or Chester Chiu conducted on projects touched by one of their relatives, he added.

However, the Department of Building Inspection was not aware that Jonathan, Chester and Frank Chiu’s brother, Yuang Tam Chiu, had inspected permits their family members worked on before The Standard’s inquiry, Hannan said.

The Department of Building Inspection is also not aware of any evidence that Jonathan or Chester Chiu, who still work as inspectors, gave favorable treatment or overlooked any violations on projects that their uncle Frank Chiu or cousin Chris Chiu worked on, Hannan said.

Through the department spokesperson, Jonathan and Chester Chiu provided a joint statement, saying that they had never discussed permits with their uncle Frank or cousin Chris in their personal time and did not give them favorable treatment.

“We apply the building code equally to all projects and none of our inspections have ever violated City policy,” they said.

'The appearance of conflict ... erodes public trust'

Created by voters in 1994, the Department of Building Inspection has faced accusations of providing improper favorable treatment for almost as long as it has existed. 

In 2001, the City Controller’s Office shed light on a widespread perception inside the department that permit expediters received improper preferential treatment. In more recent years, federal prosecutors have charged a former inspector and two former plan checkers—none members of the Chiu family—for accepting bribes or illegal reward payments for inspecting projects and expediting building plans. In January, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins charged an inspector who was fired after The Standard found that he inspected his own home and projects his contractor father worked on.

The Chiu family situation alarmed Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin.

“They may have done a very professional, unbiased inspection, but it’s the appearance of conflict that erodes public trust,” Peskin said. “I think the department has an obligation to look at permit expediters who have a former connection to the department, whether they’re department heads or line staff, and all the more so if their relatives are on the payroll.”

A pensive man with a beard and glasses, wearing a suit, rests his face on his hand, seated behind laptops.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin listens during a City Hall meeting in December 2023. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Debra Walker, who served nearly two decades on the Building Inspection Commission overseeing the department, said it's important for officials to be “overly cautious” about even the appearance of impropriety.

She said the building inspection system should be more transparent about who is involved in a project so that inspectors can avoid conflicts.

“The appearance of impropriety is almost as important as the letter of the law is,” Walker said. “When you are inspecting or doing anything official that grants authority that gives somebody the ability to move forward and you are related to them, somebody needs to know that.”

Chiu family overlap

Frank Chiu’s relatives have inspected projects he consulted on for more than a decade.

The inspections date back to 2013, when his brother Yuang Tam Chiu conducted a ceiling inspection on a $500,000 job that Frank Chiu consulted on at 645 Harrison St., an office building near Rincon Hill.

Yuang Tam Chiu left city employment in 2018, according to the Department of Human Resources.

Most recently, Chester Chiu conducted a ceiling inspection on a $2.4 million office renovation at 680 Folsom St. on Jan. 11. His cousin, Chris Chiu, was consulting on the project for a large construction firm.

Out of the bunch, Jonathan Chiu, Frank’s nephew, conducted the vast majority of the inspections on projects touched by his family. That includes 35 inspections spread across projects at five different properties.

A city scene with a sign featuring company logos in front of a modern building, next to a sidewalk with trees and pedestrians.
People walk past 680 Folsom St. on Thursday. Chris Chiu consulted on a project in the office building and his cousin, Chester Chiu inspected the renovation. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The jobs were all renovations at downtown office buildings, including inside the high-rises at 4 Embarcadero Center and 50 California St.

The largest was a $6.1 million upgrade of an office at 405 Howard St. Jonathan Chiu did four of the five inspections on that project, including the final inspection, between May 2021 and February 2022.

After The Standard sent Frank Chiu a list of inspections by his family members on projects he touched, Chiu said he sent the list to Department of Building Inspection Director Patrick O’Riordan so that the city could ensure that all the inspections were conducted properly.

He emphasized that his nephews were not the only ones to review the projects because construction on high-rise buildings is also reviewed by fire officials, for instance.

"If you want to make money, you get out, like I did."

Frank Chiu

At least one contractor who hired Frank Chiu as a permit consultant knew about his family connections on the inside of the department.

In emails obtained through a public records request, an executive for contractor Hathaway Dinwiddie reached out to Jonathan Chiu to invite him, his father and his uncle to an annual golf tournament that the company hosted in the Presidio on Friday mornings in 2018 and 2019.

“Can you see if Frank and Tam would like to attend,” the executive asked Jonathan Chiu in a 2019 email.

Jonathan Chiu thanked him for the invites, saying that his uncle and father would make the event, though he would have to miss it.

“I hope Tam brings some of the pork buns for you guys,” he wrote.

‘I don’t see anything wrong’

On Tuesday, Frank Chiu sat inside his office in the Marina District, near a strip of motels on Lombard Street. Photographs of Chiu posing with California Govs. Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown and Gray Davis lined his desk. Two rolls of building plans leaned up against the wall in the corner.

Chiu, who prefers to be called a “code consultant” or “permit consultant” over the more commonly accepted term for his job, “permit expediter,” reached into his desk. He pulled out two encyclopedia-sized books and dropped them on the table with a thud.

Builders in San Francisco have to follow those rules, as well as additional layers of codes and processes added by the city and the state. That’s where he comes in to help navigate the byzantine codes and ensure that projects get approved without any hiccups.

“DBI people have a tough job to do,” Chiu said. “I don't think people realize the complexity of the codes.”

A smiling middle-aged man with glasses, wearing a suit.
Frank Chiu poses for a photo in November 2014. | Source: The Standard

Chiu was a high-ranking building inspection official working under the Department of Building Inspection’s predecessor bureau when then-Mayor Frank Jordan tapped him to lead the newly created department in 1995.

His brother Yuang Tam Chiu also worked for the predecessor bureau and continued under him as a building inspector.

During his nearly decadelong tenure at the helm, during which he also served under Mayors Willie Brown and Newsom, Frank Chiu said he fired or suspended more than a dozen “bad apples.”

In one case, Frank Chiu said he caught a former employee who stole an official stamp and used it to fraudulently make it look like the department had signed off on building projects.

It was under his administration when reports first emerged in 2000 that the FBI was investigating Rudy Pada, a plan checker who was later charged with taking bribes from 2003 to 2017. Pada pleaded guilty last December to one honest services wire fraud conspiracy charge.

Chiu quietly stepped down from his job in 2004 on the heels of another scathing report into alleged favoritism within the department, this time from a special monitor appointed by then-Mayor Newsom.

A modern building facade with large glass doors, tall columns, and parked scooters in front.
One of the properties that Frank Chiu worked on as a permit consultant that was also inspected by one of his nephews is 405 Howard St. in San Francisco. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

So when Yuang Tam Chiu’s sons became building inspectors in 2013, Frank Chiu said he sat his nephews down to warn them.

“No free lunch, no free dinner,” Frank Chiu recalled telling his nephews. “You don’t get very rich. If you want to make money, you get out, like I did.”

Frank Chiu said he never spoke with his family members about his projects and did not remember the conference call with his nephew Jonathan Chiu.

He said that his job is mainly to help architects and others involved in a project make sure their plans would meet the city’s building code, not to interact with inspectors who eventually examined the work.

“I don’t see anything wrong with what I do,” Frank Chiu said.

Frank Chiu said he doesn’t have a close day-to-day relationship with his nephews. They speak several times a year, and when they do, it’s about kids and family, not construction projects, he said.

Frank Chiu said he does his best to avoid conflicts. While he works as a developer himself in other parts of California, he said he has no projects of his own in San Francisco and only owns one property: his home.

When he heard several years ago that Jonathan Chiu was assigned to a project he was consulting on, Frank Chiu said he called his nephew’s boss and asked him to reassign the job to a different employee.

“That’s how careful I was,” Frank Chiu said. “You know why? I don’t need them. Why would I want to get them in trouble?”

The image shows architectural blueprints and a building permit application form.
Department of Building Inspection records show details about a permit that Frank Chiu consulted on and was later inspected by one of his nephews. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

One longtime permit consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, scoffed at the idea that an inspector or plan checker would not provide favorable treatment on a project that they knew their relative worked on.

“I didn’t build a skyscraper,” the consultant mused. “I just got all the approvals to build the skyscraper.”

But the consultant said there are solutions for the problem. One idea, he said, is to have inspectors disclose to the department all projects worked on by their family members on the outside that may pose a conflict. Then, the department knows not to assign the inspector to those projects.

“The city has dealt with this a lot, and there are a dozen different managerial techniques you can do to make sure there is not even an appearance of hanky panky,” the consultant said.

The Standard asked the Department of Building Inspection’s director why he doesn't have his inspectors disclose all family members who work in the construction industry, so that the agency can proactively ensure that they aren’t assigned to projects that have a connection to their relatives.

Through his spokesperson, O'Riordan replied, “Because just being related to someone is not a violation of the City policy.”