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L&I dodges questions about 600 inspections by 9 rookies in one week

A group of inexperienced and uncertified inspectors for the Department of Licenses and Inspections conducted around 600 inspections of unsafe buildings in a single week last month, The Inquirer has learned.

At 2014 Latona St., a single-family, two-story brick row home, a wall was bowed, making the building unsafe. Thursday, March 19, 2015.
At 2014 Latona St., a single-family, two-story brick row home, a wall was bowed, making the building unsafe. Thursday, March 19, 2015.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/Staff

A group of inexperienced and uncertified inspectors for the Department of Licenses and Inspections conducted around 600 inspections of unsafe buildings in a single week last month, The Inquirer has learned.

Each of the nine newly hired inspectors then recorded their work in L&I's database under the name of another man, an experienced inspector with the agency.

L&I officials say the inspections were part of a training exercise for the rookies.

The inspections, from Feb. 9 through 13, were performed the same week City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a report criticizing L&I for not inspecting unsafe buildings - those that are badly damaged or deteriorated - in a timely manner.

Many of the roughly 100 buildings on which the 600 inspections were performed had not been inspected in two to three years, L&I records show.

Building inspectors in Philadelphia are required to be certified under the Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code (UCC).

And, wrote a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industry, "for any inspection relating to the UCC to be legal, the individual conducting the . . . inspection must maintain a valid UCC certification."

On Friday, Butkovitz said the L&I situation "reminds me of the Verizon commercial where they complain of connections that are 'half-fast.' "

He added that because L&I did the work "without certified inspectors and without documentation that's tight," the city could be exposed to potential legal problems.

If a contractor or property owner unhappy with L&I sues, Butkovitz said, "then you go to court and say, 'I think we sent someone to inspect something and he made a finding under an alias, and our records are insufficient to establish what happened.' "

Butkovitz concluded: "There's a very good chance L&I will lose those cases."

L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams declined to be interviewed and asked a reporter to send him questions in writing.

Though it's true the trainees did not possess the certifications the state requires inspectors to have, Williams said in his written response, they were nevertheless qualified to do the work they performed because they had passed a standardized building-code exam.

All that separates the inspectors from certification are some bureaucratic requirements that Williams said were easily attained.

Current and former L&I personnel say the use of nine trainees to do the work was an attempt by agency officials to avoid censure and clear up a backlog of inspections.

The result, critics say, is a false record in the city database - a situation akin to a police report that lists the wrong arresting officer, one veteran inspector said.

The effort, according to an L&I employee, was a "wildly inappropriate misrepresentation."

And, critics say, the confusion created by the inspection record fosters the sense that even after L&I leaders pledged to remake the agency after the Center City building collapse that killed six people in 2013, L&I's credibility remains suspect. Since then, the troubled agency has been under increased scrutiny and has faced calls for reform.

Veteran L&I employees say they can't recall training in which new hires were ordered to assess unsafe buildings, which often present complex and even dangerous problems. And no trainee ever inspected a building without a veteran in tow before, employees said. The L&I employees asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

Also, old hands who say a veteran inspector can do no more than 12 inspections in a day question how nine newcomers did more than 600 inspections of 100 unsafe properties.

And nothing in L&I's computer system appears to indicate that what the inspectors did was a training exercise, say sources with long-standing ties to the agency.

In fact, one employee concluded, no one was ever meant to discover that nine men represented their work as that of a single inspector.

"It was a cover-up, pure and simple, so the commissioner could clean up the list of uninspected buildings," the employee said.

Williams refuted the criticism, saying that everything the agency did was above-board, and that no subterfuge was involved. He also said that at L&I, "we promote accountability and responsiveness to matters of public safety."

Along with learning to do inspections, the nine trainees were also being taught how to document inspections in the department's data-management system, known as HANSEN.

Although learning HANSEN was a main point of the exercise, Williams said, "The inspectors in training were not set up on the city's data system." He did not explain why.

And because they were not in the system, Williams added, the nine had to sign in using the identification of an experienced employee - Shane McNulty - whom Williams described as the lead training operations inspector.

L&I sources said at least one of the nine trainees who did the inspections was set up on the HANSEN system and had in fact signed in under his assigned number on Feb. 9 - the first day the 600 inspections began.

Asked to comment on that, Williams did not respond.

"It's not that hard to get the actual inspectors signed on to the system," Butkovitz said. "This doesn't make sense."

Williams said it was not true that the agency panicked and reacted to criticism from the controller. L&I was simply doing its job, and it takes seriously its charge to keep Philadelphians safe by inspecting unsafe buildings, he said.

He said the employees who did the inspections were identified in the L&I database, but in a different field from the official inspection report. "There are no L&I rules and regulations preventing this procedure," he wrote.

A previous L&I commissioner disagreed.

"Saying one person did the work of nine others is unheard of," said Bennett Levin, who headed L&I between 1991 and 1995. "It's indicative of how out of control the agency is. It's bizarre, absolutely a state of disarray."

Beyond the inspections by the trainees, L&I employees said they were troubled by another entry in the agency database.

McNulty, the employee whose name was used by the nine trainees to record their inspections, also performed 102 inspections of his own on a single day - April 12, 2014, L&I records show. McNulty did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Williams said McNulty did not perform inspections, which require a visit to a site. Rather, the commissioner said, those 102 entries were "audits" of material in the database. He simply sat at his computer and checked for insurance, Williams wrote.

Several L&I employees disputed Williams' assertion, saying inspectors do not conduct audits - only inspections.

Records obtained by The Inquirer show that when McNulty, in his April 12 work, failed a contractor for not having insurance, he created a document in the database that included the word inspection five times. It began, "On 12-APR-14, a[n] . . . inspection was made on the above referenced property. You have FAILED this inspection."

Further, in a box labeled, "VIOLATION," McNulty wrote, "There was no proof of current insurance neither [sic] on site nor in the L&I data base."

That implies an on-site inspection was done when in fact it was not, L&I employees said.

And that makes McNulty's document "a lie," according to Geoffrey Hazard, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, and a recognized authority on legal ethics. "In Philadelphia, lots of agencies get away with stuff they shouldn't," he said. "Contractors and building owners ought to be concerned."