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 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 department, leading to a growing perception that City Hall is questioning his leadership.
Department officials concede that Adelman is demanding, 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 recent 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. Some veterans 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 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 from contractors, engineering and architectural firms and law offices for 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 fund-raising events on city time; and that failure to participate is met by retaliation. “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 he says, ‘Take it to my executive officer.’ ”
On Tuesday, Executive Officer Ray Chan addressed these allegations with spokesman Robert Steinbach and chief of code enforcement Dave Keim. Chan pointed to a March 2 memo to the mayor and the City Council from City Administrative Officer William Fujioka, which recommends 74 new employees to deal with staff burnout, customer dissatisfaction and increased liability for the city due to the department’s inability to keep up with safety inspections. Chan said disgruntled employees had made bogus accusations and that department charity events are pursued voluntarily and on personal time. “Sometimes people don’t want to work as hard as they should,” Chan said.
Last November, after a story in the L.A. Times raised eyebrows about a “Casino Night” charity event attended by developers, Villaraigosa ordered Adelman to cease such events. The department returned almost $8,000 in donations. Adelman then canceled his annual golf tournament that raises money for the March of Dimes. Adelman declined requests to be interviewed, but Chan said the golf event was canceled due to lack of employee interest.
Court documents, Building and Safety records, news reports and interviews with employees who are cooperating with the city audit suggest that Adelman, despite the department’s 2003 selection by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government as one of the top 100 programs in the country, has a tarnished image. In 2002, for instance, the Times reported that Adelman met with Westside developer Mark Abrams — who was fined by the Ethics Commission in February for laundering campaign contributions for former mayor Jim Hahn — and re-assigned a street permit that had been denied, after Abrams’ company Beverly Hills Construction Management gave $125,000 to Hahn’s anti-secession campaign. After the permit was approved, the company donated another $50,000.
LIKE MANY CITY DEPARTMENTS, Building and Safety frustrates civil servants when perceived cronies of the boss advance as a “team player,” rather than on merit. In 2000, a group of nine employees complained to the Board of Civil Service Commissioners 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. One of the suits identifies projects in which code violations by major developers were ignored.
One lawsuit, by Phillip Kaainoa, 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.
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 alleged sexual harassment by Chan, learned he was being fired for 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 sent the case back to the Board of Civil Service Commissioners to determine if Babayans was fired in retaliation for his remarks about Chan. Chan declined to comment.
Adelman has drawn fire before. In 2002, representatives of the city personnel department contacted 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, the City Attorney’s Office and the personnel department, all of whom 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, which was dismissed, but in a lawsuit filed by another employee, Tervalon has stated that Adelman, Keim, Chan and former executive officer Walt Krukow have violated Civil Service Commission rules, the City Charter and department policy, after they promoted employees to assistant deputy superintendent. “This is the United States,” Chan said. “Anybody can sue anybody. Maybe she felt her voice was not heard. We prefer to let bygones be bygones.”
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 orders to rate them accordingly at their civil-service interviews. According to Tervalon, 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 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 he 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 complaint also states that he has close relationships with prominent lobbyists as well as with 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 accusing Sanchez of attempting to extort money from the department. No criminal charges were ever filed.
According to court documents, Adelman and Keim 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. Keim and Adelman declined to comment.
Sanchez has his own gripes about Adelman. In the summer of 2001, Sanchez’s complaint states, Councilwoman Jan Perry made two requests to Adelman to assign Sanchez to her office to chair a special task force on building and safety 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 Fourth 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 about 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. Chan said the lobbying charge against Adelman is “totally bogus,” and that some inspectors “get stuck on the letter of the law, whereas the department looks to the spirit and intent of the code.”
IN APRIL, THE WEEKLY REPORTED that downtown land banker Richard Meruelo demolished industrial buildings containing toxic substances without permits. Witnesses say they saw city vehicles observing the demolition at 1060 N. Vignes St., which is near the Gold Line Metro, wedged between Union Station and Chinatown. Months passed, but after the story appeared, Keim, the chief of code enforcement, leaped to action and convened a rare hearing to determine whether Meruelo should be prevented from developing the property for five years.
Documents obtained by the Weekly show that Meruelo has enjoyed soft treatment before. Veteran inspectors say those who protest get pushed aside. A December 2001 letter to Assistant General Manager Rhonda Sims-Lewis of the city personnel department from Phillip Kaainoa states that 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 to fill a large basement without permits or inspections. Kaainoa states that Chan, then chief of inspection, waived the permit requirements against the advice of the chief engineer of the grading division, David Hsu. Kaainoa 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 senior 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 St. Yet the department kept issuing orders for the removal of unauthorized fill dirt, finally granting Meruelo a certificate of compliance in May 2005. “Just because we issue orders doesn’t mean people comply right away,” Keim said. “They rarely do. The goal is compliance, which is not immediate.”
Documents tell a similar story at Meruelo’s properties located at 1312-1318 E. Seventh St., where department inspectors issued compliance orders throughout 2002 citing lack of ventilation, improper fire doors, lack of plans and permits for sprinkler systems, lack of ingress and egress to basement areas and unapproved construction by Meruelo’s tenants. The Weekly could not confirm any enforcement action.
A veteran of the department who has no legal action pending against the city said that developers have Adelman on speed dial in case inspectors try too hard to enforce the law. “Adelman has perverted the civil-service system and the building codes. Auditors have been up here for months.”