When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave Robert “Bud” Ovrom, his deputy for economic development, the task of cleaning up the Department of Building and Safety after general manager Andrew Adelman was forced out amidst accusations of grotesque sexual abuse, Ovrom was wary.
Ovrom, the former Burbank city manager credited with guiding its economic turnaround, says he immediately probed Building and Safety for skeletons.
“Everybody I talked to said there were no corruption problems in the department,” Ovrom tells L.A. Weekly. “Not one person told me there were ethical or corruption problems.”
But just how hard Ovrom pressed Adelman's top supervisors — men accustomed to running the big department their own way — is an open question.
A cloud hung over the Villaraigosa administration as police investigated the ousted Adelman, who made headlines in August 2009, when a city consultant alleged that Adelman had raped her with objects in a bizarre sex den at his condo. The district attorney declined to file charges.
A few months later, Ovrom, Adelman's replacement, issued a performance evaluation showing that despite serious operational flaws, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety was sound. He subtitled it “Making a Good Department Even Better.”
But one year after that report, in April 2011, the FBI arrested two Building and Safety inspectors in South Los Angeles, Hugo Gonzalez and Raoul Germain, for taking bribes. The department had missed the graft but had put the men on leave and planned to fire them for poor performance. Both are in prison today.
Now, the FBI is investigating Building and Safety inspector Samuel In, who operated mostly in Koreatown. Last May, he abruptly retired just two days after being placed on administrative leave — and six years after a Building and Safety inspector told his supervisors that In tried to tempt him into a cash-based corruption scam.
Ovrom, who earns $218,363 a year, tells the Weekly that corruption on the part of Gonzalez and Germain was simply “a failure of supervision.”
But after a four-month probe into the Samuel In case, the Weekly has found a persistent pattern of questionable conduct and contradictory claims by Building and Safety brass when it comes to corruption. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the grand jury has requested the department's files on In.
High-ranking Building and Safety personnel allowed In to work for years after Greg Glover, an alleged eyewitness and co-worker, reported him for corruption. And now the department is making contradictory claims about how it handled whistle-blower Glover — and about what it was doing to ferret out corruption before the FBI finally stepped in last April.
The autocratic Andrew Adelman created a powerful city department badly lacking in modern anticorruption controls. Ovrom himself admits that some employees went without evaluation for four-year stretches, and that staff rotations designed to halt graft were all but halted. Critics seemed prescient in May 2011, when, following the Gonzalez and Germain arrests, the FBI subpoenaed the records of 10 other Building and Safety employees, including Samuel In.
Ovrom put In on administrative leave last May 4. He retired two days later — with a full city pension of $72,444 a year. He was not at his Glendale home when the Weekly tried to interview him, but he has told the L.A. Times he did nothing wrong.
That's not what former Building and Safety inspector Greg Glover says.
In an interview with L.A. Weekly, Glover says he promptly reported to his Building and Safety supervisors in what he thinks was 2005 that In had offered Glover a fat envelope of cash, saying: “We would really like you to be working with us.”
Glover, who left the department in 2010, says In had approached him at a job site on Crenshaw Boulevard and asked Glover to join him at the Rotex Hotel on Olympic Boulevard for a quick meeting. Glover says that In, a Korean-speaking inspector, had previously tried to hinder him from giving citations to nonpermitted construction in Koreatown.
Over tea, Glover says, In slid a cash-stuffed envelope across the table.
Glover tells the Weekly he was disgusted and responded, “Sam, I have a job, same as you. We work for the Department of Building and Safety for the City of Los Angeles.” Then, Glover says, he pushed the envelope of cash back to In with his fingernail.
Glover immediately reported the incident, and was called in to meet personally with Building and Safety supervisors, including Bob Steinbach. Six years later, as one of his first housecleaning acts at Building and Safety, Ovrom appointed Steinbach to head the Inspection Bureau.
Glover tells the Weekly that Steinbach brushed him off in 2005, saying they had investigated In for other incidents and found no evidence against him. “We have nothing,” Glover recalls Steinbach saying. “Thank you for your concern.”
Glover said Steinbach then dismissed him with a curt handshake.
The implicit message, Glover says, was, “Never say a damn thing again, we don't want to hear from you. We already know about this. Get up, get the hell out of here. Shut the fuck up.”
When Gonzalez and Germain were arrested April 8, 2011, Glover, who was no longer at Building and Safety, read the news reports in consternation. He called the FBI hotline to report the cash-stuffed envelope incident. On April 26, he emailed Ovrom to inform him that he had complained to the FBI.
Glover was incredulous when he got a response back not from Ovrom but from Steinbach, the supervisor who, he says, pooh-poohed his eyewitness complaint in 2005.
When Glover called Ovrom to complain that Steinbach was the person who had ignored him in 2005, Glover tells the Weekly, Ovrom advised him to call the FBI.
Ovrom sees things differently, telling the Weekly that he asked Steinbach about the particulars of the 2005 allegation about the cash-stuffed envelope. “In my conversations with Bob [Steinbach], he took it seriously [in 2005],” Ovrom says. “In point of fact, they pursued it.”
Steinbach, a 27-year employee making $176,374 annually, tells the Weekly in a testy response to Glover's allegations, “We conducted an investigation! I'm not going into the details!”
Glover has a reason for questioning whether an investigation was conducted: After he informed his bosses in 2005, nobody ever asked Glover to repeat his whistle-blowing account of the cash-stuffed envelope.
Johnny Yutronich, president of the Municipal Construction Inspectors Association, representing inspectors in five city departments including Building and Safety, says the basic practice has been, “Someone tried to bribe us — they do nothing. That's the way it was, not a big deal. It wasn't high on their list of priorities.”
Last month, Steinbach angrily told the Weekly that Glover was “not aware of what details we had,” and that all Glover could offer was “an accusation.”
But this month, the story from Building and Safety brass has dramatically shifted. On Feb. 8, Building and Safety spokesman David Lara told the L.A. Times that “department officials don't recall such a meeting” with Glover.
And Raymond Chan, who earns about $196,000 annually, wrote on Feb. 6 in an email response to written questions submitted by the Weekly: “Neither Bob Steinbach nor myself is aware of, or has any recollection of a 2005 Greg Glover allegation involving Sam In.”
When Chan wrote this, Bob Steinbach had already confirmed to the Weekly that Glover had indeed reported In to his superiors.
There's another troubling problem among the Building and Safety brass: Throughout the time that the now-imprisoned Gonzalez and Germain were being investigated and then found guilty of taking bribes, Steinbach never told Ovrom about the possible problem with In.
When the Weekly asked Ovrom why, Ovrom said, “[Steinbach] just didn't do it.”
Steinbach says he didn't report In to Ovrom because he was “reporting the result of the investigation to [Raymond] Chan,” the department's second in command.
After the FBI arrested Gonzalez and Germain in April 2011, Ovrom says, he learned that LAPD had investigated In for an unrelated complaint, “but no evidence was ever found of any wrongdoing.”
Less than a month later, the department put together what Ovrom calls a “prima facia” case that warranted placing In on administrative leave and probing his past activities.
At least from the outside, it appears that for years, Building and Safety supervisors sat on information against In — then dusted it off when the feds swooped in.
Building and Safety brass never imagined they'd have to publicly defend their practices. But as has been widely reported by Los Angeles media, a private memo written by Ovrom to Mayor Villaraigosa last May was inadvertently sent out to Building and Safety employees by Dave Carter, Ovrom's assistant.
Ovrom's politically embarrassing memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Weekly, explains to Villaraigosa how clever Ovrom was in misdirecting the media so that the public would never know about In.
“As far as we are concerned, [In] has retired and that is all we will ever tell the media,” Ovrom wrote to Villaraigosa.
He also noted, of the corruption cases swirling around Gonzalez and Germain: “It is bad enough that these incidents happened. It is perhaps even worse that our supervisors never caught this blatant illegal activity.”
Ovrom framed the FBI probe to Villaraigosa in terms of a bothersome PR problem, complaining that the federal investigation had caused him to be “unsuccessful at staying in front of this story.”
When the Weekly first spoke with Ovrom late in 2011, he told the paper he was “unhappy” to have been left in the dark by his staff about previous allegations regarding In and another worker, Albert Acosta. (Acosta, a Van Nuys building mechanical inspector, was fired last year after being accused of taking bribes. He could not be reached for comment.)
But more recently, after the Weekly's tense interview with Steinbach, Ovrom said he understood how the department's system of investigating corruption might have left him out of the loop. “When I arrived here, I was not told about any ongoing investigations [regarding] Sam In or Al Acosta. I don't find that particularly unusual. This is a big department and there are always going to be some accusations. … They would not get to me until they had reached a certain level of confirmation.”
Building inspectors and Yutronich told the Weekly that under previous General Manager Andrew Adelman, the push was to complete building inspections as quickly as possible — even at the expense of supervision.
Adelman was a player in Villaraigosa's effort to, as the mayor has repeatedly stated, “make the official bird of Los Angeles the construction crane.” But standard accountability practices — like supervisors riding with inspectors, following behind them or meeting them at their last scheduled stop — deteriorated, inspectors and Ovrom say.
“Under Adelman, it was, 'Get the calls done,' ” Yutronich says. “That was all that mattered, not supervision. It was quantity over quality.”
Ovrom appeared to copy Adelman's sloppy approach last year when he quickly placed top insiders with potential conflicts of interest — Chan, Steinbach and possibly others — in charge of a performance audit of about 460 Building and Safety employees, which arose from the FBI probe of Gonzalez and Germain.
The city later hired an outside, independent investigator, Martha Supernor, to review their completed performance audit.
Glover and other L.A. inspectors say they are worried that letting Chan and Steinbach run the initial audit may have tempted insiders to remove or manipulate information and data that might have damaged reputations or shown them to be asleep at the wheel.
“We needed to do something right away,” Ovrom says. “We did it to the best of our ability without trained investigators.”
Steinbach defends his corruption-fighting credentials by saying he “personally fired Albert Acosta.” And Ovrom says of Steinbach, “He is a primary leader in our efforts to improve our supervisory training efforts.”
The department now has turned over to federal investigators the files on more than 10 employees engaged in possible suspicious activity, none of which Ovrom knew about before the FBI arrests last spring.
Ovrom says his department also has given the feds the names of at least 10 contractors and 10 expediters — firms hired by builders to cut through the department's red tape — who may be involved in wrongdoing.
That's some 30 employees, builders and expediters — a lot of people to investigate in a system described as being healthy.
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