Burning Questions Update: LA Dept Of Building & Safety

Transcript of an on-air Report Broadcast Jan. 18, 2007 on KNBC

LOS ANGELES -- INTRO: Seldom do we get a look at how a powerful city agency assesses our reporting -- and its own work. But sometimes an insider says too much to keep under wraps. That's what happened with the story you're about to see -- LA's Department of Building and Safety under the microscope.

PAUL MOYER: He may look calm and collected but, according to informed sources, Andrew Adelman, head of LA's Department of Building and Safety, is upset these days over a memo leaked to us from Department files... a scathing critique prepared two weeks ago by one of his own about how the department handles safety inspections and building permits around the city.

The author of the in-house assessment is a "Principal Inspector" named Richard Fortman.

RANDALL AKERS: This is not something that was designed to be released to the public or given to the public for scrutiny.

PAUL MOYER: Fortman says flatly in the memo: "When the Principal... inspector reviews the permit history (of various projects) we discover that many of the inspectors should never have signed off on the inspection card... as there are too many things not done..."

RANDALL AKERS: He seems to be saying that they're issuing Certificates of Occupancy while there are corrections still open, unresolved corrections.

PAUL MOYER: Randall Akers was once a building inspector. Now he helps property owners deal with the department. He says Fortman is raising serious questions.

RANDALL AKERS: He examined the paperwork and determined that things are missing or permits weren't closed or permits weren't issued.

PAUL MOYER: Fortman cites a recent audit by City Controller Laura Chick who chastised Building and Safety for leaving 140,000 permits open and unaccounted for in its computerized PCIS database.

LAURA CHICK: We don't even know if the projects had final sign-offs or if they were done properly.

FORTMAN: Our inspectors have lost sight of the ultimate goal which is to get the property completely... signed off..."

PAUL MOYER: There's also reference in the memo to a specific problem case, Playa Vista, a huge building project on the west side that's sits atop flammable methane deposits. Fortman worked as an inspector there.

PATRICIA MCPHERSON: The memo proves out what we've been saying and documenting all along. That there are big gaps in the inspection process at Playa Vista.

PAUL MOYER: Environmentalist Patricia McPherson has filed a lawsuit that's forced the Building Department to re-examine safety devices and permits at Playa Vista to make sure they've been done properly.

Fortman cites the lawsuit and advises colleagues in an e-mail we also obtained that "Every permit must be finaled and closed out."

He also mentions "Channel 4" and says "many attacks by various media have brought to light a few relevant issues." In fact we've aired nearly a dozen reports on Playa Vista, including one in which a government scientist, who preferred anonymity, blasted Adelman's agency.

INTERVIEW SUBJECT (Video shows subject in silhouette): Officials at the Building and Safety Department have been complicit in developing the project before the answers are in, especially in relation to the methane gas.

PAUL MOYER: In responding, the department told us: "All methane mitigation systems...of each building at Playa Vista have been completed and inspected and approved before that building is occupied."

Fortman is less expansive, warning colleagues by e-mail that "there are many (Playa Vista permit) applications... that have not yet been issued as permits. Many are of such serious importance that they cannot be ignored."

Referring to a specific Playa Vista address, he says, "I will not put my signature on any occupancy certificate" until all permits and permit applications are "closed out."

RICHARD FINE: He is saying that things have not been properly signed off.

PAUL MOYER: That very statement could backfire on Fortman, says Richard Fine, lawyer for the environmentalists suing over Playa Vista. Fine says the statement contradicts an earlier sworn declaration Fortman made in court about the same Playa Vista address, defending its safety status.

RICHARD FINE: In that declaration he states mitigation systems are operational. This is not the case based on the statements he is making in his memo to his own colleagues.

PAUL MOYER: Several days before Fortman circulated his e-mails and memo, we aired a report on another of his projects, the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles... where, we determined from city documents, a critical fire safety system has never been finally tested and proven.

Fortman, who knows Staples first-hand, signed off on its Temporary Certificate of Occupancy in 1999, with apparent reservations... saying in his sign-off note: "Conditions of approval are to be amended every day. Final correction notice not yet issued." As this inspection entry shows, he was slated to sign off on the Permanent Certificate of Occupancy, but didn't

His memo doesn't mention Staples, but a source close to him says it keys off of our Staples report and focuses on problems we identified. Fortman tells colleagues generally: "TCOs [Temporary Certificates of Occupancy] have been too readily handed out at the drop of a hat. Our employees have been too quick to...simply issue a TCO prior to the project being ready for occupancy... Each property must be completed to its fullest."

TIM LEWEIKE: We never asked for any favors. We never cut any corners.

PAUL MOYER: Staples President Tim Leweike told us in an interview the arena passed all fire-safety tests and got no special treatment -- a position echoed by the Fire Department and Building and Safety.

Without naming names Fortman faults his own colleagues for not understanding that -- as a general rule -- "properties are not entitled... to a TCO."

RANDALL AKERS: I would characterize this as a candid memo from peer to peer.

PAUL MOYER: We asked the Department about Fortman's memo.

They said he's just rescinded it (quote) "... until I have had time to consult with everyone involved... The point I was attempting to make here was that the Department may not have received all the housekeeping data (for projects under review)... I am not suggesting that any project was unfit to be occupied, was not safe, or ...incomplete"

The department declined to let us interview Richard Fortman.

STUDIO TAG: The Building Department says any copy of the Fortman memo circulated without a Draft label attached is fraudulent. We've obtained two copies, one with the label, one without. They're identical. We've also learned that Fortman has already issued a memo to get inspectors to review and redo their work. At Playa Vista, the developer continues to insist -- without offering proof -- the project is safe.

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