Former SF building commissioner charged with federal bank fraud charges for allegedly diverting checks to personal accounts

Rodrigo Santos
Rodrigo Santos

Former San Francisco building commissioner Rodrigo Santos has been federally charged with bank fraud in connection with a scheme to divert into his personal bank account funds that his clients intended to be paid to the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection (DBI) and other city departments.

David L. Anderson from the US Attorney’s Northern California office and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett announced the charges on May 12.

According to the complaint filed May 11, Santos, 61, of San Francisco, is the principal and co-founder of Santos and Urrutia Structural Engineers, Inc., a structural engineering company based in San Francisco.

The statement says Santos has been involved with inspection work in the city both through his firm and through political appointments. For example, he was appointed to the San Francisco Building Inspection Commission in 2000 and as the commission’s president in 2004 by then-Mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom, respectively.

The complaint alleges that between January 13, 2016, and March 18, 2019, Santos deposited a number of checks into his personal bank account that had been written to third-party departments, companies, and an individual.

The complaint alleges that Santos fraudulently deposited into his personal account 261 checks totaling $478,377.83. Specifically, the complaint describes several examples of Santos’ alleged diversion of the funds of individual clients.

In one example, Santos instructed joint owners of a residential project to write a blank check to DBI for the uncertain cost of obtaining a purported permit from the agency. After the owners wrote a check to DBI for an amount “not to exceed $3,000,” the check ultimately was deposited into Santos’s personal account with the hand-written endorsement “DBI” on the reverse of the check.

In another example, the owners of a different residential project wrote several checks they believed would be submitted to DBI or San Francisco’s Department of Public Works for various permits. Santos caused four of the checks to be deposited into his personal bank account with “DPW” or “DBI” hand-written in the endorsement field on the reverse of the check

In yet another example, the charges assert, the homeowners wrote a check in the amount of $1,314.50 as pay to the order “DBI,” and Santos added letters changing “DBI” to “RoDBIgo SANTOS.” The check was deposited into Santos’s personal bank account.

Finally, the complaint alleges that, when confronted with this evidence, Santos submitted forged invoices to the FBI.

Santos is charged with bank fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1344. If convicted, Santos faces a statutory maximum of 30 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine.  However, any sentence following conviction would be imposed by the court only after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.

The charges contained in the criminal complaint are mere allegations. As in any criminal case, the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.

Santos was arrested on May 12 and appeared before U.S Magistrate Judge Alex Tse.  Magistrate Judge Tse ordered Santos released on a $100,000 bond.

In another statement San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said: “We’re pleased that our investigation and civil enforcement action has led to criminal charges against Mr. Santos.”

“Our case against Mr. Santos exposed both how he undermined public safety and how he defrauded his own clients. Our team developed a detailed case against Mr. Santos, and I’m glad the U.S. Attorney’s Office used that information to help build their criminal case.

“We’re pleased that our investigation and civil enforcement action has led to criminal charges against Mr. Santos. Our office works tirelessly to make sure that those who abuse the law are held to account — no matter their position. Our case against Mr. Santos exposed both how he undermined public safety and how he defrauded his own clients. Our team developed a detailed case against Mr. Santos, and I’m glad the U.S. Attorney’s Office used that information to help build their criminal case. I applaud the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for taking criminal action against him, and I especially want to thank the investigators and attorneys in our office for their meticulous investigation into Mr. Santos’ wrongdoing.”

The criminal case against Santos arose out of a civil enforcement action by Herrera, who uncovered the scheme and alleged in an amended civil lawsuit unsealed in March 2020 that Santos was engaging in check fraud. The civil case also alleges that Santos and his associates engaged in permit fraud regarding at least nine different properties in San Francisco.

The case is being prosecuted by the Special Prosecutions Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The case is being investigated by the FBI.  San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera also alleged in a lawsuit unsealed in March 2020 that Santos engaged in check fraud.

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