SCANDAL: City Takes Another Look at Sites Under Supervision of Rogue Inspectors

Safety concerns arise after two building inspectors plead guilty to granting site approvals in exchange for payment.

For construction experts watching the bribery scandal unfold at the Department of Building and Safety, there are nagging worries.

They picture sagging roofs, shaky foundations and faulty electrical wiring, all approved as building inspectors rubber-stamp projects in exchange for cash, and allow unsafe structures to rise around the city.

"There's supposed to be a code of ethics," says Bruce Miller, a former inspector with the Building and Safety Department who now runs his own land-use consulting company. "What if something happened?"

Two inspectors pleaded guilty in May to granting approvals at sites for duplexes and single-family homes in exchange for payment, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A third inspector, who worked out of the Van Nuys office and made more than $83,000 last year, was fired last month for allegedly soliciting bribes, said David Lara, spokesman for the Department of Building and Safety.

Another inspector retired in May after being placed on leave by the department amid questions of wrongdoing, according to Lara.

The investigation - which began at the department in January after an anonymous letter arrived at one of its divisions - now stretches from South L.A. to the Valley. Some in City Hall believe more arrests or dismissals lie ahead.

Given the ongoing FBI probe, Department of Building and Safety head Robert "Bud" Ovrom can't publicly name the addresses of the sites that were checked by those inspectors.

But concerned about the potential for faulty inspections, the department is going back and re-inspecting sites that were under the supervision of the rogue inspectors.

Ovrom acknowledged that process has its limitations.

"If you are inspecting a foundation, and a building has been built on top of it, you can't see it anymore. If you're inspecting the electrical and the drywall has been put over the front of it ... you can't see it," he said. "To the extent that we can go back and re-inspect, we have. But we're not going to tear down a building."

In some cases, the contractors never got started. The two inspectors arrested earlier this year handed in checked-off cards on projects but were caught after officials visited the sites and found that construction hadn't yet started.

As for the scope of the investigation, Ovrom could only speak in generalities. "Single family homes, room additions are inherently more vulnerable," he said. "They're more vulnerable because it's a lone contractor with a lone inspector out on a lone site."

Joe Sandi, president of Sylmar-based Big Valley Roofing, a licensed contracting company, can outline the risks of improper work. "The electrical, you do it wrong and you could burn down a house," Sandi said. "Improper plumbing, you have health and environmental issues, like brown water. Improper framing, there's always the danger of collapse."

While Sandi said he's never seen instances of bribes exchanged, he has questioned some of the roofing jobs that building inspectors have signed off on.

"We've gone up on the roof, and seen things and been like, man, the inspector was never up here," Sandi said.

Gene Prowizor, president of Culver City-based AAa Building Inspection Service, which employs retired city inspectors, agreed that he has seen shoddy inspection work.

"Things that shouldn't be approved are being approved," Prowizor said.

Prowizor was interviewed three weeks ago by the FBI about the city agency, but he declined to say what he told the investigators.

But he said he lodged a complaint about a site in South Los Angeles in the late 1990s.

The South L.A. house had a damaged foundation and a cracked chimney, Prowizor said. Additionally, a washer and dryer sat on the lawn, an "electrocution waiting to happen," according to Prowizor. But despite the complaint, the inspector signed off on the paperwork, he said.

Prowizor said he called a supervisor at Building and Safety, but was told the inspector had political connections and couldn't be touched.

Meanwhile, the complaints about some employees at the department are familiar. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky heard gripes from developers during his time as a councilman in the 1980s.

"There were rampant rumors in City Council you could get a building inspector for $50 to sign off on something that shouldn't be approved," said Yaroslavsky, adding the complaints centered around work on houses. "Or you'd pay to expedite a project."

Miller, a former building inspector who left the department in 1986, remembers the headlines when a Van Nuys inspector was caught taking a bribe in exchange for granting approvals for a hair salon. Miller was not surprised to hear about more cases of bribery and he's still baffled by the risks taken by the corrupt inspectors.

"The inspectors make good money," said Miller. "I don't know why they would jeopardize their pensions."

According to Ovrom, contractors and developers are also being investigated. But as the probe widens, it's unclear if more arrests will satisfy an uneasy public.

At a city hearing on the scandal last week, City Councilman Paul Krekorian said that he's seen the consequences of poor building codes in other countries.

"We have seen buildings collapse that here would ride out the storm," he said. "We have seen people seriously injured or killed because of inadequate safety inspection."