the Cracked Foundation
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.
Adelman had drawn criticism before. In 2002, representatives of the city personnel department contacted veteran personnel director Gina Tervalon regarding complaints they had received about alleged discrimination and harassment by Adelman. According to court documents, Tervalon met with representatives of the Mayor’s Office, City Attorney’s Office and the personnel department, who requested that she provide information regarding misconduct by Adelman. Tervalon submitted a written complaint detailing numerous allegations, which she claims went unaddressed.
In 2004 Tervalon filed a retaliation lawsuit alleging verbal abuse that got dismissed, but in a separate lawsuit by another department employee she has stated that Adelman, chief of code enforcement Dave Keim, former chief of the engineering bureau Ray Chan (now Adelman’s executive officer who was accused of sexual harassment), and former executive officer Walt Krukow have violated Civil Service Commission rules, the City Charter and the department’s own policy in promoting a number of employees to the position of assistant deputy superintendent.
Tervalon further states that in June 2003, former chief of development services Steve MacDonald told her he had been approached by Keim with a handwritten list of who was to be promoted, and instructions to rate them accordingly at their civil-service interviews. According to Tervalon’s declaration, MacDonald later told her that Adelman instructed him not to reveal that promotions had been predetermined. Tervalon describes what she considers a manipulation of the process designed to promote individuals with lower scores on the civil-service exam, and states that Adelman and Keim accused a commercial building inspector who scored high of being “on the take,” in an attempt to derail his career.
RICHARD SANCHEZ WAS AMONG THE NINE employees who protested the civil-service process in 2000, and since that time has been at odds with Adelman and Keim. In his 2004 complaint of discrimination, harassment and retaliation, Sanchez paints a tawdry picture of the department under Adelman. Sanchez’s troubles coincide with those of Phillip Kaainoa, allegedly because of their involvement with the Los Angeles Professional Managers Association. Sanchez’s network of contacts also shows him to have close relationships with prominent lobbyists as well as current and former elected officials.
Sanchez claims that Adelman accused him of attempting to undermine management in the course of conversations with lobbyist Darlene Kuba, who represented the union, and who at one time had considerable influence in City Hall. Sanchez also claims that former City Councilman Nick Pacheco, whose campaign he worked on, requested that Adelman appoint Sanchez as a liaison to the council, but that Adelman refused. Sanchez claims that Adelman filed a complaint with the LAPD in which he accused Sanchez of attempting to extort money from the department. No criminal charges were ever filed.
According to Sanchez’s complaint, Adelman told department employees that Sanchez and colleague Robert Martin were on the “dark side,” and that they accepted bribes from developers. Again, no criminal charges were filed.
Sanchez has his own gripes about Adelman. In the summer of 2001, Councilwoman Jan Perry made two requests to Adelman to assign Sanchez to her office to chair a special task force on building and safety and urban maintenance issues in the 9th Council District. Adelman refused.
In September 2001, at Adelman’s request, assistant deputy superintendent of building Thomas Stevens organized an inspection of an adaptive reuse project owned by developer Tom Gilmore on a “rush” basis, according to the complaint. Stevens told Sanchez that Adelman insisted on approval of the Continental Building, at the corner of 4th and Spring streets, for a certificate of occupancy despite “serious fire and life-safety problems in violation of building and other codes.”
The complaint further states that a month later, in October 2001, Perry asked Sanchez to investigate several complaints regarding Gilmore projects in her district. Sanchez reported to Perry that Adelman approved Gilmore’s properties at 408 and 410 S. Spring St., and 408, 410 and 411 S. Main St., “despite existing serious fire and life-safety violations.” Sanchez claims that Adelman has slandered, demoted and harassed him for reporting alleged “unlawful practices,” according to the complaint. He also claims that Adelman instructed city officials to lobby for Gilmore before the city attorney.
IN APRIL, THE WEEKLY REPORTED that downtown land banker Richard Meruelo demolished industrial buildings containing toxic substances without a permit. Witnesses to the demolition say they saw city vehicles observing the demolition at 1060 N. Vignes St., which is close to the Gold Line Metro, wedged between Union Station and Chinatown. After the story appeared, chief of code enforcement Dave Keim leaped to action and convened a rare hearing to determine whether Meruelo, who is being investigated for potential environmental violations by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, should be prevented from developing the property for five years. According to photographs presented at the hearing, Building and Safety inspectors observed the demolition before the property was entirely cleared, and notified Meruelo that he violated city law. Yet for months the department took no enforcement action.
Court documents and documents obtained by the Weekly show that Meruelo has enjoyed soft treatment before. Veteran inspectors say those who protest are in for a heap of trouble. A December 2001 letter to Assistant General Manager Rhonda Sims-Lewis of the city personnel department from Phillip Kaainoa states that since April of that year, Meruelo ignored numerous notices to stop all grading work at 761 Terminal St., the site of the Alameda Produce Market, and continued to import soil for purposes of filling a large basement without permits or inspections. Kaainoa states that Ray Chan, then chief of inspection, waived the permit requirements against the advice of principal inspectors, including Sanchez, and the chief engineer of the grading division, David Hsu. He called it an “example of the climate and policies initiated by Andrew Adelman, through his appointments of individuals who support his agenda without regard [for] the ordinances.”
A handwritten note from principal inspector John Kelly to deputy superintendent Dave Lara on January 16, 2003, indicates a final hearing before the city attorney on the grading violations at 761 Terminal. However, the Weekly could not confirm such a hearing ever occurred. Rather, the department kept issuing orders to remove unauthorized fill dirt, finally granting Meruelo a certificate of compliance in May 2005.
Documents obtained by the Weekly tell a similar story at Meruelo’s adjacent properties located at 1312-1318 E. Seventh St., where department inspectors issued compliance orders throughout 2002 due to lack of ventilation, improper fire doors, lack of plans and permits for sprinkler systems, lack of ingress and egress to basement areas and lack of operational sprinkler systems, in addition to unapproved construction by Meruelo’s tenants. The Weekly could not find evidence of any enforcement action.
Mayor Villaraigosa, Controller Chick, Jan Perry and Adelman did not respond to requests for comment. A veteran of the department said that up until now Adelman has been untouchable, that his clout with developers has insulated him. He said that developers have Adelman on speed dial in case inspectors try too hard to enforce the law. “It’s in Antonio’s hands now,” the veteran said. “Adelman has perverted the civil-service system and the building codes. Auditors have been up here for months.”
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.