O’Donoghue and Zacks Launch New Attack Against DBI Head Amy Lee

by Casey Mills and Randy Shaw on October 31, 2005

Last Thursday, notorious Ellis Act eviction attorney Andrew Zachs filed a formal appeal with the San Francisco Board of Appeals challenging building permits obtained by DBI Director Amy Lee for renovations to her home. The appeal, filed on behalf of the previously nonexistent “Citizens for the Equal Treatment in the Permit Process,’ prevents Lee from starting work on a new bathroom and family room until a hearing can be held on December 14. Sources at City Hall have confirmed that Residential Builders Association (RBA) leader Joe O’Donoghue is behind this latest harassment of Lee. O’Donoghue has not ceased attacking Lee since her appointment as DBI director last spring, and hopes that by putting her family interests at risk he can pressure her to step down.

Although Andrew Zacks once filed a complaint with the FBI over Joe O’ Donoghue’s relationship with DBI, and currently represents a builder at war with the RBA, the two are now making common cause in their effort to drive Amy Lee out of her job. This latest scheme was the appealing of Amy Lee’s personal building permits so that her husband and three children must wait until at least December 15 for work on a family room and second bathroom to begin.

While O’Donoghue has long prided himself on standing up for what he believes, he is now attempting to conceal his identity by inventing the unknown “Citizens for the Equal Treatment in the Permit Process” to conceal his own control of the appeal. Sources at City Hall that wished to remain anonymous have identified the Citizens group as a front for Joe O’Donoghue.

O’Donoghue’s attacks on Lee began last Spring, when he and fellow RBA members questioned Lee’s ability to perform the duties of a department head due to her status as a pregnant woman. The Board of Supervisors issued a public condemnation of O’Donoghue’s actions soon after, but this has not prevented him from continuing to publicly attack Lee, most recently at a Building Inspection Commission hearing.

Now, it appears O’Donoghue wants to take the battle a step further, and has chosen one of San Francisco’s most reviled figures as his ally. The RBA head hired real estate attorney Andrew Zacks to do the legal work surrounding the appeal, a move that will likely rankle tenant and affordable housing advocates across the city.

Zacks recently found himself the target of a protest at the doors to his office, where a group of tenant advocates called attention to his role in the vast majority of Ellis Act evictions that have occurred in the city. These evictions have displaced hundreds of long-time, low-income, disabled and senior tenants from their homes, many of which were forced to move out of San Francisco as a result.

Protestors also highlighted Zacks’ own recent foray into the eviction business, having just purchased an 8-unit building. Zacks apparently bought it solely to use the Ellis Act to evict the tenants there and then re-sell the building, which he hopes will increase confidence among real estate speculators that such a thing can be legally done.

Many San Franciscans may be surprised to learn that anybody in the world, even a fictional entity, can appeal permits for internal renovations to a home. This appeal automatically triggers at least a six- week construction delay, and if the appellant appeals each permit as it is approved, the process can be delayed for months.

Even worse, the innocent homeowner will likely feel obligated to retain legal counsel. This means at least another $1000-$5000 for preparing legal papers and attending the often lengthy Board of Appeal hearings.

DBI Director Amy Lee is the target this time, but any member of the public unhappy with the action of a city employee can simply threaten to appeal any permit the employee seeks for their house. San Francisco’s granting of the right to appeal internal renovations even to those not living within 500 feet of the premises is crazy, and invites the type of abuse perpetuated by Zacks and O’Donoghue.

The irony, or more accurately, hypocrisy of O’Donoghue’s involvement is that he and the RBA have long complained about frivolous appeals of their projects. O’Donoghue has specifically attacked land use attorney Sue Hestor for filing appeals where the complainant lives nowhere near the property — now he has given the green light for even the most malicious appeals to be routinely filed against RBA projects.

Another irony is that O’Donoghue’s and Zacks’ appeal primarily claim that Lee’s permit was issued too fast. But Lee has worked to expedite permit processing so that everyday citizen’s, including herself, receive them faster

Due to Zacks’ legal right to wait a set period of time before filing briefs related to the case, the earliest Lee could request a hearing on the appeal would be November 15. In the best – case scenario, this would prompt a hearing on December 1.

Until then, Lee and her family, including a just-born baby girl, will be forced to live in the living room, as well cost her significant funds due to delays with her contractor.

Mayor Newsom and Board President Peskin control the appointees to the Building Inspection Commission, and they must intervene to stop the harassment of Director Amy Lee. As for Zacks and O’Donoghue, the question Army Counsel Joseph Welch posed to Senator Joe McCarthy fits their situation well—“Have you men no decency”?

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