The Department of Building Inspection last week confirmed that it will launch an internal investigation after Mission Local found several veteran inspectors had overseen work performed by family members. In multiple instances, the family members also had a financial interest in the buildings.
Two of these DBI officials have risen through the ranks to attain the role of chief inspector, the top position beneath deputy directors.
The inspectors in question are Acting Chief Building Inspector Kevin T. Birmingham, Inspector Sean Birmingham and Mark Walls, the chief building inspector in plan-review services. Walls is related to the Birminghams through his stepfather.
Mission Local has found 20 instances in which one of the three DBI employees oversaw a job performed by a member of their extended family. Five of these jobs took place in a building in which a Birmingham had a financial stake.
The Birminghams are a large San Francisco family whose name has long been synonymous with city construction. That was true even before Birminghams began working in city departments (There are presently four members of the extended Birmingham family working at the Department of Building Inspection; John Birmingham is an electrical inspector).
Acting chief building inspector Kevin T. Birmingham’s brothers, Bryan and Robert, are both builders and Robert is a successful developer and building-owner. His cousin, also named Kevin Birmingham, is a realtor, former builder and building owner. His uncle, George Birmingham, is a veteran builder.
In the Department of Building Inspection
In the Department of Building Inspection
Family tree by Will Jarrett. Permit data from the Department of Building Inspection.
- DBI records reveal Kevin T. Birmingham inspecting or doing other work on jobs performed by all four of these relatives: George, Kevin and his brothers Robert and Bryan. In at least two instances, he oversaw a job performed by a Birmingham in a building in which a Birmingham has a financial stake.
- DBI records reveal Sean Birmingham inspecting jobs undertaken by Bryan and Kevin, his brother. Kevin Birmingham is Sean Birmingham’s brother, and the job was in a building owned by an LLC managed by Kevin Birmingham. That LLC is named after the Birmingham family’s city of origin in Ireland, Milltown.
- Finally, Walls inspected jobs done by George and Robert — with the latter being in a building where Robert also manages the LLCs that own the structure. Walls also plan-checked four jobs undertaken by George — his late stepfather’s brother. He checked the plans on two jobs by Robert — with one of those jobs occurring at a time that Robert also managed the LLC that owns the building. In 2022, Walls plan-checked one of Bryan’s projects.
Mission Local’s queries about this to the Department of Building Inspection resulted in the initiation of an HR probe. Our questions raise “important issues that we will incorporate into our investigation of these occurrences,” writes the department.
Over the past four years, the Department of Building Inspection has seen its former director, Tom Hui, forced out at legal bayonet-point, with many of his top lieutenants hurriedly retiring. Former senior inspector Bernie Curran has been sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison for a bribery scheme and is also on the hook for a two-year term for perjury. Former plan-checkers Cyril Yu and Rudy Pada are also facing federal bribery charges.
The Department of Building Inspection declined to make the Birminghams or Walls available to speak.
Kevin Birmingham declined to be interviewed. Bryan Birmingham said both Kevin T. Birmingham and Sean Birmingham were the district inspectors on his jobs, and were assigned to them internally. “I’ve had Sean a number of times and Kevin a couple of times,” he says. Bryan Birmingham says the work was honestly done and honestly inspected.
Robert Birmingham said he has no idea how his relatives ended up doing work on his jobs and within buildings where he has a financial stake — a situation he says he’s worked to avoid. He describes his brother Kevin T. Birmingham as a man who is “probably too honest” and says “we try to keep our business on the up and up.” He said he hasn’t spoken to Walls in a decade and described the work Kevin T. Birmingham performed on his sites as “insignificant.”
George Birmingham said “I wouldn’t know,” regarding how his family members ended up signing off on his work. “I’ve been in the building department almost five fucking years waiting to get a permit,” he continued. “You say someone’s helping me? Bullshit. I’m gonna sue the fucking city. You write that in your fucking paper.”
In November, the San Francisco Standard’s Michael Barba revealed that DBI inspector Van Zeng inspected his own home and also inspected work done by his father’s construction company. Also in November, Mission Local reported that ex-DBI plan-checker Cyril Yu approved work on his own family’s home.
District Attorney Brooke Jenkins this month filed charges against Zeng. Yu, who is facing federal bribery charges, has not yet been hit with any local counts regarding the work he approved on family property.
Zeng’s attorney disputed any wrongdoing, claiming that Zeng was improperly terminated by DBI and that the criminal charges are unwarranted. Zeng claims to have been randomly assigned to inspect his own home. He also argues that he did not immediately realize he was inspecting the work of his own father’s construction company.
Before facing criminal charges, Zeng underwent an HR investigation of the sort the Birminghams and Walls ostensibly stand to face. Clearly, the department found his excuses wanting, and he was sacked; the DA also didn’t buy them.
The department, again, did not deign to allow Mission Local to speak to the Birminghams or Walls. But if they were to offer explanations similar to Zeng’s, it’s not clear how well that would go. A superior assigning a subordinate inspector a property in which the subordinate’s family member or close associate did the construction work — and/or has a financial stake in the building — does not absolve an inspector who then oversees the job.
“DBI employees are required to follow DBI’s Code of Professional Conduct which requires them to recuse themselves from any issue in which they, a family member or a close personal acquaintance, has an interest,” writes the department. “When hired, all DBI employees receive a copy of the Code of Professional Conduct and sign an acknowledgement that they have received the document.”
Neither the DBI nor the DA evidently gave much credence to Zeng’s claim he didn’t know whose jobsite he was inspecting. It remains to be seen whether the Birminghams or Walls make a similar claim.
It would be an interesting claim: Over three months in 2019, Kevin T. Birmingham did five inspections — including a final — on a job performed by his own brother, Bryan. Over three months in 2018, Sean Birmingham did four inspections including issuing a Certificate of Final Completion at his cousin Bryan Birmingham’s jobsite. Both Kevin T. Birmingham and Sean Birmingham inspected their own brothers’ jobs — and properties.
Jobs were inspected at sites like 1301 Sansome St. and 921 Front St. — gorgeous, historical buildings that are prominently listed in the “Our Properties” section of the Birmingham Development, LLC website.
Inspectors unrelated to the Birminghams, meanwhile, say they know whose sites they’re inspecting. And they certainly know when it’s a relative of high-ranking members of the department.
“It’s a matter of survival to know which job you’re going to see and who is running that job,” says one, “lest you be told you did the wrong thing to the wrong person.”
Map by Will Jarrett. Data from the Department of Building Inspection.
At present, nobody is alleging any wrongdoing by any of the building owners or contractors involved here. And nobody is currently claiming shoddy work by either the contractors or DBI personnel.
Rather, a system in which relatives are inspecting relatives’ work and properties is inherently problematic — and belies the underlying rationale for having an inspection system in the first place.
“The general rule of transparency is that any branch of government wants to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Whether there is a real conflict of interest or not isn’t even as important as avoiding the appearance of one,” says Douglas Hansen, Santa Clara’s former supervising mechanical, electrical and plumbing plans examiner and inspection supervisor.
“An appearance of a conflict leads to greater mistrust and disrespect of the building department by the public.” On the Birmingham jobs and sites, “We don’t know how good a job they did and whether they should’ve passed. But we shouldn’t have to ask.”
Hansen adds one final suggestion: The Department of Building Inspection should alter its system so “the inspector and inspectee don’t have the same last name.”
Joe Eskenazi missionlocal.org Featured,Government,Department of Building Inspection
2024-01-08 19:03:27 , Mission Local