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No prison time for developer who bribed city officials for 18 years

Sia Tahbazof and his compatriots paid city inspectors in order to get special treatment on his projects

A man in a dark suit and sunglasses walks outside, with cars and buildings in the background.
Convicted developer Sia Tahbazof arrives at the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Nov. 17, 2023. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

A federal judge has given no prison time to a San Francisco developer who admitted to bribing city officials in a prolonged scheme to accelerate building permits and pass inspections.

Sia Tahbazof, 73, was sentenced to three years of probation and a $75,000 fine for his crimes. The corrupt developer appeared in court Friday with scores of supporters who filled the gallery.

“This was a serious offense,” U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston said before handing down the sentence. “It took place over 18 years. That's a long time to be paying bribes. That’s a long time to foster corruption in the housing department.” 

Illston said, "It hurts my heart” that Tahbazof, who fled Iran and was given sanctuary in the United States, came here and committed acts that undermined the integrity of its civic institutions.

“The people in the city and county of San Francisco expect that their homes and buildings will be safe. And part of that is that the buildings inspected are safe."

Federal Prosecutor David Ward

Tahbazof had faced a potential maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. After changing his plea to guilty, prosecutors recommended the light sentence he ultimately received. Tahbazof expressed remorse and regret in his statements in court on Friday morning.

​​“I just want to apologize to your honor, the government and the city of San Francisco,” he said as he covered his face to wipe away tears. “I came to this city in 1973, when I was a student. I fell in love with this city.”

The seriousness of the offense was underlined by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Ward, who tried the case. 

“The people in the city and county of San Francisco expect that their homes and buildings will be safe. And part of that is that the buildings inspected are safe,” Ward said, adding that corruption such as this “corrodes people's faith in our government.”

The government’s reasoning for recommending the lesser sentence is due to Tahbazof’s cooperation in other cases. The developer came to the government before he was even on its radar, agreeing to aid it by wearing a wire and helping them build cases against several building inspection officials, Ward acknowledged.

A man dressed in a blue suit and tie stands next to a woman wearing a silver and pink dress as they look at the camera for a posed portrait.
Sia Tahbazof, right, poses with his wife, Samaneh Tahbazof. | Source: Arthur Kobin for Drew Altizer Photography

Before he was sentenced, his defense attorney, Edward Swanson, commended his client’s cooperation with the government and for the good he has done in his life. 

Swanson told the judge that the politically connected Tahbazof, who heads design firm SIA Consulting and SST Investments, completed many building projects, including for low-income tenants, all of which were properly built and safe. 

“He’s not just a developer who has done well, but he did good,” Swanson said. 

Bahman Ghassemzadeh, Tahbazof’s nephew, employee and co-conspirator, who also cooperated with the government, was sentenced to three years probation and must pay a fine of $25,100. He also apologized to the court, saying, “I know the actions I have taken have caused shame, and I thoroughly regret them.”

Today’s sentencing follows Tahbazof and Ghassemzadeh’s guilty pleas in January.

Tahbazof was initially charged on Nov. 9 with one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud in connection with the alleged bribery scheme.

Three people enter court
Bahman Ghassemzadeh, left, Sia Tahbazof, right, and Ghassemzadeh's attorney Gail Shifman, center, arrive at the Phillip Burton Federal Building on Nov. 17, 2023. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Tahbazof, Ghassemzadeh and a third conspirator bribed three Department of Building Inspection employees. Reza Khoshnevisan, the third defendant in the scheme, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest service fraud on Feb. 9 in a plea agreement. He has yet to be sentenced. 

Tahbazof received numerous letters of support from his family and friends calling for a light sentence.  

The case against Tahbazof was one in a series filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office following its prosecution of Bernie Curran, who was a city building inspector to whom Tahbazof gave illegal payments, along with engineer Rodrigo Santos.

The scandal expanded after Curran was imprisoned when the U.S. Attorney's Office filed charges against two men he had worked with, former plan checkers Cyril Yu and Rudy Pada. Both men have since pleaded guilty in separate cases and admitted to participating in the bribery scheme involving Tahbazof, Ghassemzadeh and Khoshnevisan.

A man in a gray suit and tie leaves a building with a clenched smile
Bernie Curran, former San Francisco Senior Building Inspector, exits the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in San Francisco after a sentencing hearing on July 14, 2023. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

In their plea agreement, Tahbazof and Ghassemzadeh admitted to conspiring to bribe Pada and Yu with money, meals and drinks in exchange for building permits. 

Tahbazof and Ghassemzadeh admitted to also paying Curran $1,500 for every inspection he performed on their projects. Tahbazof forgave Curran a $30,000 debt.