INTRODUCTION: City politics can be hardball. But seldom do we get a front-row seat to witness the fun. In the next few minutes you'll hear a top city official accuse a major player in the development industry of trying to shut her up. It's a rare inside look at how the power game is played in LA.
LAURA CHICK, CITY CONTROLLER: He threatened my auditor and said he should be fired and was angry and bullying, I would say.
PAUL MOYER: Steve Soboroff, president of the massive west side building complex Playa Vista.
STEVE SOBOROFF: It's time for the city to bring this issue to a close.
PAUL MOYER: Chick says Soboroff tried to bully her into shutting down her recent investigation of Playa.
LAURA CHICK: He had called me upset that we were going to release any report on Playa Vista. There were mentions in the conversations of suing the city, suing me and you if I did this or if I said that, and that to me is extremely inappropriate behavior. I'm being kind. It's bullying behavior. It's intimidating behavior.
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PAUL MOYER: The intimidation didn't work, says Chick. On June 5, she released her Playa Vista report, and soon afterwards gave us the first of two interviews summarizing her findings.
LAURA CHICK: It was hard to get sound solid facts.
PAUL MOYER: Her report focused on city oversight of methane safeguards at Playa Vista. The project sits atop explosive methane deposits and is required by a City Council directive to have devices in place to monitor and manage the methane.
The report accused the city agencies of "inconsistent installation and acceptance testing of detection systems in some single family homes" -- and faulted LA's Department of Building and Safety for poor record-keeping on just about everything.
LAURA CHICK: What we found was mush.
PAUL MOYER That would seem to be a fairly straightforward conclusion. But surprisingly, on the final page of her report, Chick did an about face, suggesting everything is ok at Playa Vista. "Nothing came to our attention to indicate that required inspections relating to methane mitigation, or the project as a whole were not performed," Chick wrote.
This statement is so at odds with her more cautionary findings that we filed a Public Records Act Request asking to examine the more than 600 pages of "work papers" used in preparing her report. So did environmentalist Patricia McPherson.
PATRICIA MCPHERSON: What we discovered time and again is that the city departments have not done the required inspections.
PAUL MOYER In these audit interviews, Building Inspector Richard Fortman, who has worked at Playa, said he "could not guarantee that each and every inspection document still exists and is available for review."
Fire Inspector Michael Ng, whom auditors described as the only city inspector at Playa with formal methane training, said he has not inspected gas detectors in many of these single family homes and those he has inspected often failed their acceptance tests. He warned that many are so badly designed they "would impose a safety hazard for the LAFD" in an emergency.
After reviewing the work papers we wrote a summary for Chick pointing out where her final upbeat conclusion seems to diverge from the facts and asked if she'd softened it to suit Steve Soboroff.
She granted us a second interview defending her work and insisting that threats don't faze her.
LAURA CHICK: I'm elected by the public to put out truthful reports and audits.
PAUL MOYER: But having said that, she also acknowledged that she had sidestepped some things revealed in the work papers.
LAURA CHICK: The working papers show problems we did not highlight in our report.
PAUL MOYER: And she acknowledged off-camera that, at Soboroff's prompting, she had removed from her report the name of a controversial housing complex at Playa, Capri Homes, the complex that Inspector Ng had warned about.
LAURA CHICK: I very much felt pressure as we were finishing our research and starting to draft our report. To get a call from Mr. Soboroff who was upset and angry is in and of itself quite unusual, and for me very inappropriate for someone to tell me what I should or shouldn't say or what I can or cannot do.
PAUL MOYER: So did the pressure work? Was it a concession to Soboroff for Chick to suggest in her final conclusion that everything's fine at Playa Vista? That no evidence had come to her attention to indicate that required inspections were not performed? At first she insisted the conclusion is simply a statement of fact.
LAURA CHICK: The statement is accurate.
PAUL MOYER: But then, in answering a question from our producer, she hedged.
PRODUCER: So you're saying that with respect to methane mitigation systems, all inspections were performed that were required?
LAURA CHICK: No, I'm not saying that. If I could rewrite that sentence or pull it out entirely, I would. It does seem to contradict what we said earlier, which were there were detection inspections that clearly weren't done in some of the single-family home developments.
PAUL MOYER: In her own defense, she asserted that her overall seven-page report itself is no concession to anybody, not to Soboroff or any city agency.
LAURA CHICK: That report in no way shape or form was meant to be a green light to go forward, as is.
PAUL MOYER: And she repeated her concerns about Building and Safety's shoddy record keeping and its potential implications for Playa Vista's safety.
LAURA CHICK: It causes the highest suspicion in my mind that somebody wants to cover things up.
PAUL MOYER: In a parting shot she slammed the City Council for remaining silent about her findings, which she described as serious. And she especially faulted Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Playa Vista, for not responding more aggressively.
LAURA CHICK: I'm shocked at the silence to the report.
BILL ROSENDAHL: I don't know what she is talking about. I've been after this for seven years. Bless Laura Chick. I got a seven-page report that didn't tell me anything, didn't give me any direction, any understanding. That's why I put another motion forward again that basically said, 'Let's talk about this.'
PAUL MOYER (TO ROSENDAHL): So the city council isn't going to look at that one-sentence conclusion and say boom, rubber stamp it?
BILL ROSENDAHL: I'm not going to let them do that. That is exactly why I put this motion forward.
LAURA CHICK: We didn't need a motion to do that. The audit automatically eventually gets scheduled in committee.
PAUL MOYER (TO ROSENDAHL): She also says that developers tried to intimidate her, tried to bully her.
BILL ROSENDAHL: Well, it's shock to hear that if that's the case. To threaten us, it's our job to do what we're doing so I don't understand that. Now, my hope is when I look at the 700 work papers and notes and all of that as Frank your producer did, I've looked at his analysis of that -- I want all the relevant elements within the city to come together and to help understand for us, the people, what they're doing.
PAUL MOYER: Steve Soboroff declined to be interviewed for this report. He sent us a written statement which reads in part: "The Controller's office conducted an audit of our community without ever... contacting us for information. I called Laura Chick to express my disappointment that Playa Vista was left out of the process. She emphatically insisted that the audit was not about Playa Vista."
The Controller told us she informed Soboroff the audit was about city oversight, not Playa Vista per se.
In his statement Soboroff’s goes on to condemn what he calls "extremists" whose concerns about Playa Vista's safety, he says, have been disproven time and again.
The Department of Building and Safety declined to comment on the audit for this broadcast.
Soboroff's statement, and much of the background material for this broadcast, including a statement from the Fire Department can be found on our Web site. Click here to visit the Playa Vista Investigations page.