City hall reporter Josh Baugh and I learned a few more scraps of information about fired city employee Fernando De León; the permit company owned by his sister; and possible reasons why the FBI and police are investigating them.
First, some background:
On March 26 — a lazy, Friday afternoon in the newsroom — Josh got a tip that FBI agents were at the city’s “One Stop” center. The tipster said the FBI was carting out files from Fernando De León office, and leading him away in handcuffs.
The One Stop center is a spacious city building that feels more like a trendy art museum than a staid government building. It’s the home of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department. Developers and builders visit the One Stop center to apply for permits to develop land, construct new buildings, and renovate existing structures. De León, an assistant director at Development Services, was one of many employees who reviewed those plans.
I know De León. The last time I saw him was a month or so earlier, when I visited his colleague’s office for a story about the cracked retaining wall at the Hills of Rivermist. In the newsroom, I was walking by Josh’s desk and saw De León’s picture on the computer. “What’s up with Fernando?” I asked. Josh told me about the tip.
I think my exact words at that point were: “Holy shit.”
I offered to help find out what was going on and called Development Services. A receptionist answered. I asked for De León. He was unavailable. I asked for his boss, Roderick Sanchez. He was unavailable, too. I said I heard there were guys in suits over there and asked what they were doing. She blurted “Oh, my God,” and said she couldn’t talk about it.
I got my stuff and started running out to my car to head to Development Services. Josh caught up with me and said it was too late — the FBI had been there earlier that day and had left. So now we had some catching up to do to find out what had happened. It was about 5 p.m., and we had a few hours to go before deadline.
After more frantic phone calls — thankfully Police Chief William McManus and District Attorney Susan Reed called us back — we were able to write this story for the next day’s edition of the newspaper. It turned out the tip about the city official being arrested was incorrect, but the rest of the information was true:
FBI agents and police detectives Friday questioned an assistant director of the city department that issues permits for real estate development and seized his computer and files as part of a joint investigation.
“We’re looking at a number of improprieties,” Police Chief William McManus said, declining to discuss further details.
Investigators interviewed Fernando De León at police headquarters for several hours, but he was not arrested, McManus said. Calls to De León’s cell phone were not returned Friday evening.
McManus and District Attorney Susan Reed, who was briefed on the investigation, said the criminal probe of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department has lasted for several months. Investigators are examining “irregularities in the permitting process,” Reed said.
On these kinds of stories, it’s important to let authorities do their job, and it’s important to point out to readers that no one has been charged with a crime. At the same time, when authorities bring a city official in for questioning and seize his files, it raises legitimate questions that we have to try to answer. For example, did De León sign off on faulty permits that led to poorly designed real estate developments or buildings? Were permitting fees incorrectly assessed? Those are pertinent issues for San Antonians.
After that story was published, Josh and I started pulling public records about De León, and attempted to talk to anyone who might know something. I put a lot of miles on my car driving around the city and knocking on doors. That effort led to this follow-up story:
Federal authorities subpoenaed records last year at Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc., the largest engineering firm in San Antonio, as part of an investigation of permitting practices at the city’s Planning and Development Services department.
Two sources familiar with the inquiry said Pape-Dawson Engineers is not the target of the investigation. FBI agents appear to be focused on Rapid Permit Services Inc., a small company that Pape-Dawson had hired in the past to file development plans with the city.
Records and interviews show Rapid Permit Services is owned by Rebeca De León Lopez, who is the sister of Fernando De León, an assistant director of land development at the city who was questioned Friday by the FBI.
So we had a few more pieces of the puzzle, which led to more questions. For starters, we wanted to know what projects Rapid Permit Services had handled; how often De León signed off on the firm’s paperwork; whether he suggested to developers that they hire Rapid Permit Services; and who else worked for the firm.
We sent an open records request to the city for documents that might help us answer some of those questions. But the city attorney’s office responded that the documents aren’t public because of an active criminal investigation. So we had to find a way around that roadblock.
We heard that Rapid Permit Services had worked at the Rim, an 800-acre shopping center built in an old limestone quarry on the city’s North Side that boasts a Bass Pro Shop and the Santikos Palladium movie theater. If Rapid Permit Services had worked at the Rim, it would have been a plum job — the Rim had been one of the hottest real estate projects in town.
The developer of the Rim, Thomas Enterprises Inc., is based in Georgia, and owner Stan Thomas was friendly and helpful when I spoke to him on the phone. He confirmed that Rapid Permit Services worked on the project, and he referred me to employees at his company who knew more. They weren’t aware that Rapid Permit Services was tied to any kind of controversy, and didn’t believe they benefited from any favorable treatment.
The city has a website that allows the public to track permits, which turned out to be a useful resource. I checked various addresses at the Rim and found Rapid Permit Services was an applicant for commercial building permits at the Best Buy on La Cantera Parkway. According to the website, De León reviewed and approved plans filed by Rapid Permit Services.
That information helped us write our most recent story:
When developer Stan Thomas began transforming an old limestone quarry into the Rim, an 800-acre shopping center on the far North Side, he said his company needed help navigating San Antonio’s complex permit process.
“I was told I had to use every consultant known to man,” said Thomas, owner of Thomas Enterprises Inc.
One of those consulting firms was a newcomer called Rapid Permit Services Inc. Thomas said the firm lived up to its name — it efficiently shepherded permit applications through the Planning and Development Services Department.
But Thomas said he had no idea at least one of the firm’s owners is related to Fernando De León, a city employee who approved some of the paperwork for the Rim, records show. De León’s sister owns Rapid Permit Services, according to public records.
We still have many unanswered questions. But we know more than we did that hectic Friday afternoon when Josh first got that tip.