WHEN ANDREW ADELMAN TOOK OVER as general manager of the Department of Building and Safety in 1997, he embraced the mantra “Be a facilitator, not a regulator.” But along with a laissez-faire style that endeared him to property developers and politicians who craved a revitalization of downtown L.A. came a bullying and, at times, abusive personality, according to lawsuits filed in Superior Court.
Veteran employees have charged that Adelman’s outbursts, intimidation tactics and deference to developers have eroded the functions and responsibilities of the department, leading to a growing perception that higher-ups in City Hall are questioning his tactics and leadership.
Department officials concede that Adelman is a demanding manager, but deny that employees are being abused. They say the department is overworked and understaffed, and yet still has increased revenue from $74 million to $112 million in the past three years.
Adelman has been accused of trampling on civil-service rules, instructing subordinates to mislead personnel investigators and insisting on building-permit approvals even when safety regulations are unmet. Though many in City Hall recognize his influence and enjoy his lavish Christmas party every year, featuring Persian delicacies from his native Iran, documents reviewed by the L.A. Weekly allege that he is a volatile man who savages employees critical of his regime.
Now City Controller Laura Chick is auditing his department. According to sources who have been interviewed, and who spoke to the Weekly, auditors are getting an earful — at a time when city leaders are trying to lure investors and can ill afford to harbor mismanagement, allegations of abuse or threats to public safety. Some veteran employees of the 1,000-employee department, which is responsible for approving residential and commercial building permits and enforcing building codes, have told auditors that the department manipulates inspection statistics, and that they are discouraged from doing their job, which includes asbestos inspections. And that despite increasingly abbreviated building inspections, there is an enormous backlog of permits the department is not following up on.
Late last year, the Weekly received a letter from an anonymous source, titled “Pay to Play the Adelman Way,” which was copied to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Controller Chick. The letter described pressure on employees to pursue donations and in-kind services from contractors, engineering and architectural firms and law offices under the mantle of the “Building and Safety Charity Fund.” It stated that employees are required to pay to attend the annual Christmas party while politicians and distinguished guests receive complimentary tickets from Adelman; that employees work various fund-raising events on city time; and that failure to participate is met by retaliation or diminished promotional opportunity. “It’s absolutely true,” says a veteran employee who reviewed the letter this week. “The department functions to generate statistics and accolades for Adelman. If there’s a problem, then his standard response is ‘Take it to my executive officer.’ ”
Earlier this year, after a story in the L.A. Times raised eyebrows about the propriety of a “Casino Night” charity event attended by politicians and developers, Adelman canceled his annual golf tournament aimed at raising money for the March of Dimes. But court documents, Building and Safety records and interviews with employees who are cooperating with the city audit suggest that such attempts by Adelman to avoid further scrutiny may be too late to rehabilitate his complex, if not tarnished, image.
LIKE MANY CITY DEPARTMENTS, Building and Safety is a frustration for civil servants who feel unfairly treated when perceived cronies of the boss advance on the idea they are a “team player,” rather than simply good at their jobs. In 2000, a group of nine employees went to the Board of Civil Service Commissioners and complained that job classifications were being manipulated to reward some and hold back others. The complaint failed, but at least five employees have since named Adelman personally in lawsuits that portray him and his inner circle as fostering a hostile workplace built on fear and insecurity. One of the suits identifies a number of major projects in which code violations were ignored.
One lawsuit, by Phillip Kaainoa, the chief of the community inspection division, alleged that Adelman, in front of several employees, shoved Kaainoa twice in the chest and yelled at him to “get mad.” A complaint for assault and battery resulted in a $29,500 settlement, according to court documents.
Another suit, filed by veteran building mechanical engineer Alfred Babayans, resulted in a bizarre sequence of events. On August 29, 2003, Babayans, who according to court documents had reported sexual harassment by Adelman’s executive officer, learned he was being fired for allegedly failing to gain approval for outside employment. Adelman had not signed the firing notice and was out of the office, so Babayans, in the presence of a supervisor, called Adelman on his cell phone to protest the firing, to no avail. A couple of days later Babayans, a neighbor of Adelman’s, went with his wife and knocked on Adelman’s door to plead for his job, again to no avail. Babayans later called Adelman on his cell phone, threatened to hire an attorney and said, “The department will lose a big lawsuit. And you will be sorry.” Adelman claims he heard more threatening language. He went to the police and got a restraining order, claiming that he feared for the lives of his children. After a lengthy court battle, a Los Angeles judge has reinstated Babayans and ordered the department to pay his back salary and attorney’s fees.