Building Safety Investigation

POSTED: 8:35 am PST February 28, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles City Council has voted 12 to 1 against ordering a new safety review for the Playa Vista housing development.

According to NBC4, that vote was based partly on information provided by the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. But in a Channel 4 News special report, questions have been raised about the quality of information that's being provided by that department.

The following is a transcript of a report broadcast on NBC4.

INTRO: Whether you’re living it up at Staples or living it large at Playa Vista on the Westside, your safety is in this man’s hands, Andrew Adelman, head of the city agency responsible for enforcing building codes designed to keep you safe wherever you live or play.

ANDREW ADELMAN (AT CITY COUNCIL HEARING): Part of the challenge, council members, has been the fact that our work load has gone up about 200 percent, our staff has stayed flat.

PAUL MOYER: But among Adelman’s senior staffers at LA’s Department of Building and Safety, a storm is raging over a recent order from high that strikes some insiders as a blow to accountability -- and the basic mission of the Department

The main protester is Principal Inspector Richard Fortman. In a memo released to us under the Public Records Act, he challenges his superiors to defend a recent management directive that he sees as requiring him to sign off on projects without proper safety documentation

FROM MEMO: "…since I have been ordered to issue occupancy permits I can no longer…verify that that all the electronic data and paperwork that is required by code and ordinance…has in fact been obtained."

PATRICIA MCPHERSON: Fortman is talking about tinkering with databases when the real problem is that they have inspections they have no accountability for.

PAUL MOYER: Patricia McPherson is one source of Fortman's woes and the controversy swirling around him. She sued the city over the department’s handling of Playa Vista, a massive real estate development on the west side that is built atop explosive methane deposits… and whose safety she says can't be proven from the department's inspection files, especially its computerized PCIS system.

PATRICIA MCPHERSON: They're signing off on occupancy permits without having paper trails that these safety devices were even installed.

PAUL MOYER: In City Council hearings, Adelman has admitted some problems with the department's record keeping in general.

ANDREW ADELMAN: Some of the temporary Certificates of Occupancy had not been followed up on.

PAUL MOYER: And in his memo, Fortman acknowledges that "every lawsuit involving the department (especially Playa Vista) has identified concerns about discrepancies between the legal hard copy paper records and the electronic data within PCIS."

Informed sources tell us Fortman was given the job of resolving those "discrepancies" at Playa, where he works as an inspector, and at other sites across the city, including the Staples Center where he had signed off on Temporary Certificates of Occupancy -- TCOs -- years before.

Fortman obviously had his work cut out for him. McPherson’s lawsuit alleges large gaps in Playa Vista's safety records and the department's transparency -- a charge the department has denied.

PATRICIA MCPHERSON: Let’s take the wool off. Let’s see what’s really going on.

PAUL MOYER: And in a recent report on Staples, Channel 4 identified nearly 30 fire-safety permits for the arena that were still open in Building and Safety's computer base -- 30 permits that had been open for six years and were therefore legally expired.

Right after our broadcast, the permits were suddenly finaled, rescuing them from limbo. Soon after, in mid-January, Fortman completed his own draft report on citywide inspections. It was not upbeat.

He said, "Our employees have been too quick to take the easy way out and to simply issue a TCO prior to the project being ready for occupancy." He said, "Many inspectors should never have signed off on the inspection card or TCO (of a project) as there are too many things not done."

He announced to colleagues by e-mail that he would not sign off on certain sites at Playa Vista until paperwork reviews had been completed.

And he asked colleagues to fill out a series of "inspection check off lists" he'd created to improve accountability.

Fortman's findings were leaked to us almost immediately. They were not inconsistent with what Adelman has acknowledged publicly in response to a city audit.

ANDREW ADELMAN: Some of these issues were not followed up with.

PAUL MOYER: But Fortman paid a price anyway, according to his most recent memo. In it he disavows some of his earlier statements, including any suggestion buildings weren't safe, and assures his superiors that he never meant to imply any project was unsafe. But apparently that's not good enough. He says his immediate boss, Tom Stevens, ordered him to "put into abeyance" the review process he'd initiated and made clear "the inspection check off lists were to be destroyed and never used." He says Stevens chose "to sign off on several TCOs I'd refused to process" and "threatened me with discipline" and "stated that I am useless to him as a principal if I won’t do as he has ordered."

Fortman also makes clear in his memo he's feeling pressured by superiors to sign off on projects he doesn’t think are ready. "The intent of this letter (he writes to them) is to verify your orders to issue all of the pending occupancy certificates for all projects (including Playa Vista) that have been waiting for my signature."

He says he will comply, but wants off the Playa Vista project.

He says, "My effort to protect this department and my employees is not recognized, respected nor wanted any longer."

McPherson and her lawyer, Richard Fine, say Fortman's efforts to protect the Department have simply exposed a department no longer able to verify the safety of buildings across the city.

PATRICIA MCPHERSON: Fortman's being asked to sign off on all these projects without any paper trail whatsoever.

RICHARD FINE; He says -- I tried to get everybody on board to do the thing right and you guys are now coming down and you're telling me sign off! So it's on your heads, not mine.

TAG: Staples and Playa Vista have consistently vouched for the safety of their projects. As for Tom Stevens, he wrote this in a recent office memo: "I have not said that any permit should be signed off or any certificate of occupancy issued until the work is fully complete, the appropriate records closed and the appropriate documentation done."

We have asked for but received no official comment from the department itself.

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