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The Addled Department

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA’S OFFICE called up the troubled chief of the Building and Safety Department last week demanding answers. A series of problems neared the breaking point: a city controller’s probe stirring up negative feedback, lawsuits alleging Andrew Adelman abuses employees, and an Orange County judge threatening to hold him in contempt for failing to enforce building codes.

Adelman’s inner circle closed ranks, went behind closed doors, and figured out what to do next.

Executive Officer Ray Chan, spokesman Robert Steinbach and Chief of Code Enforcement Dave Keim appear to have Adelman’s back, but they may be among a vanishing breed. All week they had been fielding questions from the L.A. Weekly about lawsuits alleging that Adelman has created a hostile work environment. They had been dealing with an illegal demolition at 1060 N. Vignes St. that they were slow to rectify until the tear-down was exposed, and with persistent grading violations at 761 Terminal St. — both properties belonging to downtown land banker Richard Meruelo.

Chan said disgruntled employees have caused the legal fuss. The department’s job is to facilitate development and seek compliance, not act as an agent of punishment, Keim said. The department is serious about enforcement, added Steinbach.

As if to prove their point, Adelman’s top officials emerged from their 10th-floor offices on Figueroa Street last Friday and dispatched a team of inspectors to Meruelo’s Terminal Street property, home of the Alameda Produce Market. In contrast to their initial malaise over the Vignes Street demolition, and the appearance of a laissez-faire approach at the Produce Market, suddenly there was a spasm of regulatory activity — targeting the mayor’s largest campaign contributor.

Rumblings out of City Hall suggest that Adelman should think carefully about his next move. The picture emerging from his department is not pretty. Lawsuits by his employees allege he is a volatile and, at times, abusive man. City officials acknowledge that he can be demeaning and a source of problems, some caused by his tendency to encourage developers to ask for forgiveness, not permission. Homeowners in the hillside communities, where a debate over McMansions is heating up, are beside themselves.

Meanwhile, last Friday, after years of litigation in which the city has sided with a builder, the department suddenly revoked permits they had issued to Pacific Palisades developer and homeowner Mehr Beglari, who could soon be facing orders to take down a contested addition to his dream house. Adelman has been ordered to appear in Orange County Superior Court on July 13 for arraignment on charges that he has violated a court order and failed to enforce the city’s building codes.

Observers are not surprised. “The department is so unpredictable,” says a former employee of more than a decade. “That leads to inconsistent results, and the conclusion there is no policy.”

Villaraigosa’s top deputy, Marcus Allen, referred calls to press secretary Diana Rubio. Rubio did not deny that the mayor has asked Adelman to answer for his actions. Citing pending litigation in Los Angeles and Orange county courts, she declined to comment.

CITY HALL OFFICIALS HAVE KNOWN for years that Adelman’s market appeal to the building industry comes at a price: Statements filed in Superior Court by his personnel director and others describe his efforts to streamline the building-permit approval process, in which he has allegedly directed subordinates to manipulate the civil-service system to crush dissent and award cronyism.

Though city officials are aware of such allegations, which could stem from an unhealthy regulatory climate at a critical time of growth for the city, Adelman, until now, appeared made of Teflon. Court records describe a complex man whose professional and private actions are hard to understand. For instance, according to statements made by his wife in a divorce case, Adelman, an immigrant from Iran and a member of the persecuted Baha’i faith, has concealed assets, kept his family on a short financial leash and forced his wife to quitclaim property they acquired as a married couple. “I do not know why I do not know the extent of our community assets,” his wife, Jennifer Adelman, states.

For months now, auditors hired by City Controller Laura Chick have been trolling the department for answers about how Adelman manages his city regime. A survey by the marketing firm JD Franz Research Inc., obtained by the Weekly, asks employees to rate their overall job satisfaction and the quality of their work, training and supervision. The department employs 1,000 inspectors, surveyors and code enforcers with expertise in construction, plumbing, grading and electrical wiring. Sources who have spoken with auditors say they have conveyed disappointment and distrust of Adelman and his inner circle, and that auditors have made it clear they do not intend to probe areas of concern that could expose the city to legal liability.

But allegations of failure to enforce building codes seem to have entered into the minds of Chan, Steinbach and Keim, who, like their boss Adelman, have oversight responsibility for matters just now coming to light.

Most intriguing perhaps is the department’s approach to dealing with Meruelo, a voracious land banker who spent more than $190,000 to see Villaraigosa elected, after beating the L.A. Unified School District to the punch in acquiring a parcel at Taylor Yard that the school district had hoped to buy.

Meruelo bought an overlooked industrial site at 1060 Vignes St. last September and tore down four structures that a licensed asbestos inspector says contained toxic materials. Meruelo spokesman Michael Bustamante said the demolition was done “in-house.” South Coast Air Quality Management District is investigating potential environmental crimes. After doing nothing for months, a story in the Weekly prompted the department to threaten Meruelo with a “scorched-earth” action, which would prevent him from developing the property for up to five years. On June 8, a hearing examiner’s report was sent to Adelman for his ruling.

At 761 Terminal St., grading inspectors had issued persistent compliance orders after a 2001 hearing with the City Attorney’s Office, demanding that Meruelo stop all grading activity. A file note from senior inspector John Kelly in January 2003 indicated the scheduling of another hearing, but the department cannot confirm that one occurred.

An adjacent property at 1312-1318 E. Seventh St. led to persistent orders that found lack of operational sprinkler systems and improper fire doors among other defects in the large commercial space. On Monday, 10 inspectors and supervisors descended on 761 Terminal St. to assess its condition. The department did not return calls for comment. “Looked like a whole bunch of folks that didn’t have much to do that day,” said Bustamante.

Residents in Glassell Park also have complained to the city about alleged grading violations at Meruelo’s Taylor Yard property. George Brauckman, president of the Glassell Park Improvement Association, wrote a June 5 letter to Adelman, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and South Coast AQMD Board Chairman William Burke. In it, Brauckman claimed that a portion of the property was graded without permits, then paved to make way for a KIA dealership to park cars. Bustamante says Meruelo did not do the grading. Glendale KIA owner Onnik Mehrabian did not return calls.

LAST THURSDAY, AS PROBLEMS at Building and Safety percolated, Orange County Judge David Velasquez ordered Adelman to appear on July 13 to explain why he should not be held in contempt for failure to enforce court orders related to an addition at 909 Greentree Road, in the Rustic Canyon area of Pacific Palisades. Again, the department’s response was swift and puzzling.

Mehr Beglari has been fighting off legal challenges to a 6,500-square-foot, two-story addition to a 2,000-square-foot house since a permit was issued in 2001. Velasquez has ruled, and a court of appeals has agreed, that Beglari relied on an erroneous calculation of the front-yard setback requirement under city law. With each court ruling, however, Beglari has come back with a new permit application that the department has granted.

The case is in Orange County because two of Beglari’s opponents, David Horwitz and Diana Wheatley, are Los Angeles Superior Court judges. In a surprising reaction to Velasquez’s order last week, department officials revoked building permits that they had granted. The move was confusing considering previous hard-line positions taken by the City Attorney’s Office, apparently in defense of Beglari. According to a declaration filed by John Rosenfeld, an attorney who has joined Horwitz in the lawsuit, when Rosenfeld asked former Assistant City Attorney Michael Klekner what the city intended to do about a previously revoked permit, Klekner replied, “Nothing. We’re the Department of Building and Safety. We don’t like to tear down buildings, even when they are unsafe.” Klekner says his remarks were taken out of context. Yet now, with Adelman facing fines or the threat of jail, the city and Beglari are running out of options.

Beglari’s attorney, Mark Baker, is concerned about the department’s fair-weather defense of permits they granted his client. “The city seems to have an attitude of permissiveness until something happens to trigger a knee-jerk reaction.” Baker said he could not rule out a lawsuit against the city if it forces Beglari to tear down the addition. “I don’t understand the relationship between the mayor and the department. It doesn’t seem like he has the department’s back. Or Adelman’s.”