Pulling back the curtain on LA’s third-party home building inspectors

A judge in the civil suit involving Mohamed Hadid ordered the city to release names of 2 of these so-called deputy inspectors

Jan.January 23, 2019 10:30 AM
(Credit: iStock)

As investigators probe bribery allegations involving a Bel Air spec mansion being built by Mohamed Hadid, the cozy relationship between developers and third-party building inspectors making decisions about the fate of such projects has emerged as a potential issue in the case.

Earlier this month, a judge overseeing a civil suit involving the mansion ordered city officials to release the names of five people tied to the probe. Among those were two so-called deputy inspectors.

While vetted by the city, deputy inspectors are actually hired by developers to oversee building inspections on behalf of the city. The logic behind the program is that there aren’t enough city inspectors to routinely inspect every single construction project in Los Angeles County.

Yet unlike inspectors on staff with the city, deputy inspectors are paid by developers, which experts say could make them more susceptible to malfeasance.

Similarly to city inspectors, a deputy inspector can significantly impact the progress of a home’s construction. Deputy inspectors perform a series of inspections on a property to ensure it is up to code and matches the approved plans. They can also provide the final sign-off by issuing a “Certificate of Occupancy.”

A deputy inspector could make life easier for a developer by failing to report any construction violations, or issuing correction notices when there haven’t actually been corrections.

Bud Ovrom, a former general manager at the Department of Building and Safety, said that deputy inspectors could be at greater risk of breaking the law because they are more detached from the city.

“The very nature of any inspector is risky because you have an inspector who might be overdue on a motorcycle payment, or is going through a divorce, and a contractor who is behind schedule and over budget, and the two of them are off on a building site by themselves,” Ovrom said. “It’s got all the potential for a marriage made in hell.”

One deputy inspector, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it’s possible he might never cross paths with a city inspector working on the same project.

A deputy inspector working on Hadid’s half-built mansion on Strada Vecchia Road said problems at the site began to occur when the city inspector “would never show up,” The Real Deal previously reported.

In order to become a deputy inspector, hopefuls must pass a “rigorous examination and interview process,” according to the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety website.

A spokesperson for the department declined to comment for this article.

Different licenses are available for different inspection specializations, such as steel construction or grading. Generally, in order to get a license applicants must pay a $550 application fee and pass an in-person interview with a committee made up of a handful of city inspectors

Once approved, deputy inspectors’ job, essentially, is to compile reports on a project to ensure it is in line with the approved plans.

To be sure, Ovrom said that during his tenure with the city, which ended in 2013, he never witnessed any malfeasance by deputy inspectors. He said they are “subject to the same supervision” as other city inspectors.

Yet the problem extends beyond deputy inspectors, according to two former city employees.

Richard Platkin, a former L.A. city planner who worked for the city for 20 years, said he has repeatedly reported code violations in his neighborhood without ever seeing repercussions against the developers. After leaving city planning in 2007, Platkin became a private consultant for neighborhood groups and an adjunct professor of city planning at the University of Southern California.

“There must be some sort of corruption going on because every complaint is either ignored or rejected, one after another,” Platkin said. “Even when we have hard evidence from the developer, who is advertising square footage above what is permitted, no one from Building and Safety will ever take any action against these people.”

A History of Scandals

The recent suggestion by L.A. Superior Court Judge Craig Karlan that deputy inspectors could be a factor in the bribery case comes at a time when the Department of Building and Safety has come under increased scrutiny about its staffers’ involvement in other recent scandals. 

In August, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission revealed that a former employee at the department was working as an inspector on a Hollywood construction project while he provided plumbing services for the same developer. A few months earlier, a city investigation discovered there had been unauthorized purchases, falsified invoices, and other false payments, in the department.

Most recently, the FBI has been investigating the Hadid case, a probe that is ongoing.

The recent cases come nearly a decade after the FBI convicted three city building inspectors for accepting thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for building permits. Another 10 employees were fired at the time.

Ovrom, who served as general manager at the time of the convictions, said that after the incidents the department put in place several safeguards, such as tracking systems and a new rotation system that prohibited inspectors from becoming entrenched in one neighborhood.

Still, he said he’s not sure the problem has been rooted out.

“It’s pervasive in the nature of the business,” Ovrom said. “I wouldn’t take for granted that the problem has been fixed.”

Harold Greenberg, an attorney who represented one of the convicted city inspectors, said that about 60 percent of his practice stems from code violations by developers. He said he is currently working on a new case in which a building inspector allegedly signed off on a house that was not permitted.

When looking back at the scandals a decade ago, Ovrom said he could never tell who initiated the bribes.

“You always think of the crooked inspector, but it also takes a crooked contractor,” he said. “Both are motivated.”

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