By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The Department of Building and Safety’s headquarters is a 15-story twin tower on Figueroa Street downtown that it shares with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s fraud department, the city’s Department of Planning and other entities. The Building and Safety permit department on the ground floor still seems busy, despite a drastic drop in construction since the go-go days that marked the tenure of General Manager Andrew Adelman, who until very recently occupied a sprawling office in the south tower.
In the entryway to Adelman’s now-quiet office, and on every other floor of the headquarters, the walls are covered with expensive, hand-inked proclamations issued by the Los Angeles City Council. The council has given Adelman so many framed scrolls that they are piled, forgotten, in a corner.
But Adelman’s impressive biography is no longer front and center on the department’s Web site. Last week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asked the 52-year-old Adelman to take a paid leave after news broke that the Iranian-born divorcee was being investigated by LAPD for allegedly raping an unconscious woman after an innocuous downtown “pub crawl” organized by city employees.
Adelman has not been arrested for the alleged July 10 incident. Celebrity defense attorney Mark Geragos, who recently represented rapper Chris Brown, charged with assaulting his former girlfriend Rihanna, is representing Adelman. Meanwhile, “The department is operating fully and providing the professional level of services we always have and will continue to,” says Frank Bush, chief inspector of the Centralized Specialty Division.
Yet two very different descriptions are emerging of the powerful general manager who holds sway over many aspects of residential and commercial development — and thus life — in Los Angeles.
To detractors, he blatantly abetted the proliferation of illegal billboards citywide, and then sat by during the current explosion in questionable pot storefronts claiming to sell medical weed.
As L.A. Weekly reported on July 16, the Los Angeles City Council, alone among major California cities, failed last year and this year to adopt medicinal-marijuana regulations, instead allowing an explosion of unvetted pot storefronts — while liberal San Francisco and Berkeley easily adopted rules to allow only well-regulated medical-pot outlets. As a result, L.A. has one pot storefront for every 6,000 people, while San Francisco has one for every 35,000. Cashing in, more than 800 unregulated “medical marijuana” storefronts are believed to be operating here, even near preschools and homes. Adelman’s department has referred only a small number to the City Attorney for code violations. Yet Adelman and his 1,000-person department are known for hammering legal, little-guy businesses and homeowners with picayune permit rules about light fixtures and bathroom measurements.
Hanh Tran, an attorney in the D.A.’s fraud division who often saw Adelman in the building, says he “seemed like a pleasant guy who said ‘hi.’” But one woman who asked to remain unnamed, who is well-regarded in her profession, tells the Weekly that Adelman had a problem. She barely knew him, but, she alleges, one evening at a dinner with mutual friends, he grabbed and rubbed her leg under a table, refusing to stop. She found his behavior so over-the-top, “I figured he would get beat up by someone’s boyfriend or husband.”
Twelve years ago, Adelman was heralded for modernizing a failing department left in disarray by former Mayor Tom Bradley. Hired away from San Jose by then-Mayor Richard Riordan, he expedited the green-lighting of developments and streamlined a byzantine permit system, earning kudos from developers and officials.
He created, one colleague says, a “can-do, get-it-done” operation, then with 800 staff. Later, when his inspectors green-lighted so much construction during the housing bubble, the department’s revenue, mostly from fees, permits and fines, shot from $74 million to $112 million in a three-year period.
But Adelman’s popularity with developers and mayors didn’t translate to his own staff. At least five employees have named him in lawsuits that portray him as abusive, intimidating and fostering a hostile environment. His ex-wife told L.A. Weekly in 2006: “His personality is similar to the allegations made against him in court.”
Today, Councilman Dennis Zine says, “He was making changes in the department, and [legal action] is normally what happens when you make changes.” But Zine had never heard the unsavory allegations about Adelman’s treatment of women, which now riddle anonymous “comments” sections on online news and blog sites.
Says Zine, “I don’t believe any council member would tolerate it, if we were aware of it.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council were, however, well aware of serious problems with Adelman’s helming of the huge department. In 2005, Adelman held a “casino night” in Hollywood to solicit donations from developers — a major conflict of interest. And in 2006, his “case-management unit” gave special treatment to dozens of projects sought by political insiders including former city commissioners and donors to the mayor and City Council.
Also in 2006, an audit by then–City Controller Laura Chick found potentially severe problems developing under his leadership. Adelman had failed to ensure that his code inspectors were trained to meet even minimum state standards or underwent required training. A significant 43 percent had no state-recognized professional certificate.
Adelman left important fee-setting decisions to “the discretion of individual code-enforcement inspectors” — who often were undertrained or uncertified. In a practice that could easily invite corruption, angry residents and businesses were getting slapped with widely varying fees “for the same violations throughout the city,” the audit found.
The department was failing to supervise building inspectors, was giving patently preferential treatment to rich developers, and was manipulating statistics — essentially, lying — to make Building and Safety seem efficient. Chick also found “tricks and games in how it oversees some of its funds.”
In fact, Adelman’s department wasn’t efficient and wasn’t keeping up with the basics. Chick found a staggering pile of 13,600 “unresolved” code violations. Many violators were issued minor or no penalties. A backlog of 4,400 overdue elevator inspections had built up — a fact that, were it widely known, would probably upset downtown high-rise dwellers.
Chick pledged to “stay inside the department” while reforms were put in place, and Villaraigosa’s office called Chick’s audit “a road map for change.” Three years ago, Villaraigosa spokesman Joe Ramallo declared: “Anyone who is not toeing the line will face the most serious consequences.”
In fact, there’s no evidence a mayoral crackdown took place.
Villaraigosa, as the Weekly reported last fall, gives very little policy attention to any department, aside from LAPD. And Chick got busy auditing the lawsuit-mired Fire Department and delving into LAPD’s loss of a federal grant for DNA testing of long-forgotten rape evidence.
It now appears that Villaraigosa, Chick and others took Adelman at his word when he said he had halted most of his bad practices. Six months after Chick’s audit, Adelman officially reported to her that he had a plan to address her 10 findings and 28 recommendations. “I assume [the needed changes] were made,” says Zine, who serves on the City Council’s audit committee. But, he admits, “I don’t know.”
Zine is frank about being in the dark. Nobody in charge at City Hall knows whether the same rule-bending that Chick found — manipulation of data, ignoring of state certification rules and the tendency of undertrained inspectors to set wildly varying fees — is still occurring. And City Controller Wendy Greuel, who promised voters she would crack down on “waste, fraud and abuse,” says she is not going to conduct an audit anytime soon. Instead, Greuel is going to wait up to six months — for yet another written update from Adelman’s department. “We need to see what the next six-month update will be,” says Greuel spokesman Ben Golombek.
But in fact, such self-reporting is unverifiable and will not provide Greuel with hard facts about what is really going on. The only way to get such information is to conduct a full audit, as Chick did.
Meanwhile, Adelman’s department is mired in heated civic controversies that won’t go away. It has failed to conduct even minimal earthquake-safety inspections of 4,000 illegal L.A. billboards; now it is failing to check 800 unregulated pot dispensaries. The pot stores have spread across the city so rapidly that KCET reports it’s easier to open a marijuana clinic in Los Angeles than a Starbucks.
Daniel Heimpel and Max Taves contributed to this story.