To make sure contractors paid their fines for minor violations at construction sites, the Department of Licenses and Inspections instituted an idea in July 2013 called "the hold."
According to L&I officials, that meant a builder's certificate of occupancy - which declares a new building inhabitable - was delayed until his fines were settled and violations corrected.
But the holds appear to have had unforeseen effects, according to six L&I building inspectors who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
They say the holds, placed on about 500 properties across the city, prevented the department from inspecting new construction and renovations.
Once a hold was placed on a project listed in the L&I computer system, known as HANSEN, inspectors couldn't schedule building inspections because the system precluded further input, inspectors said.
And, they said, while inspectors were sidelined, contractors continued to do their work and completed projects - without inspections.
An example of this sits, unoccupied, at 700 W. Thompson St., a three-story residential and commercial property built between spring and fall 2014 without safety inspections, records show.
The property was on the hold list because of three minor infractions, records show. The contractor and owner declined to comment.
Beyond that, data related to the Thompson Street building was removed from the L&I computer system in December, as were similar data for hundreds of other properties.
After 17 months, L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams ended the policy of placing holds in December 2014.
But by doing so, department officials say, records of projects put on hold were eliminated, having been automatically overwritten by the computer program.
Inspectors say that wiped clean the accounting of projects were completed without inspections.
"It's possible people are living in buildings that were never inspected because of holds," an inspector said. "And we'll never know if it'll come back to haunt them."
Inspectors said not every property was uninspected, but they were unable to offer a precise number.
Beth Grossman, a city prosecutor for 21 years and Williams' newly hired chief of staff, declined to comment on the inspector's remark.
She said by e-mail that holds "never prohibited building inspectors from performing their . . . inspections." And she wrote, "Commissioner Williams never ordered notations of holds purged" from HANSEN.
Williams declined to be interviewed.
It's not the first time L&I officials were accused of manipulating the HANSEN system. The Inquirer reported that in February, L&I officials had nine newly hired workers perform 600 inspections of unsafe buildings then sign in to HANSEN as a single person.
Although building-code inspectors didn't visit the buildings on hold, members of L&I's Construction Site Task Force did, records show.
And that's when problems started, said the inspectors.
Separate from building inspectors who look at structural, fire, mechanical, and other aspects of building construction, task force members are concerned about matters at construction sites such as whether permits and proof of insurance are posted and whether the fence around a project is correct.
The task force issues fines for minor infractions, many costing about $100, that contractors had been reluctant to pay, inspectors said.
To address that, inspectors said, L&I bosses created a new policy nearly two years ago. If a contractor accrued three or more task-force violations without paying the fines, the word hold appeared in HANSEN next to the address of the construction site.
Aside from the fact that HANSEN precluded building inspectors from scheduling inspections at a property marked "hold," inspectors said, it was a generally understood policy at L&I that holds meant "stay away."
The inspectors took issue with Grossman's assertion that the holds never prohibited inspections.
They cited comments in the HANSEN system in which a task force inspector wrote on Dec. 20, "Please perform no further inspections until fees are paid and violations complied."
Similarly, an e-mail written in October 2014 by Dennis Ward, an L&I manager, to six employees, referenced a property being "placed on hold so that no inspections can take place until there is compliance." He also wrote, "There should have been no inspections until the violations were closed."
Theoretically, the reason inspectors weren't supposed to visit properties placed on hold was that construction couldn't progress unless contractors paid their violation fees, inspectors said.
Only it didn't work out that way, inspectors said.
In fact, in many projects around the city, contractors didn't know about the holds, inspectors said, because the task force had no mechanism for telling them.
When a contractor started a project, he would call for inspections, as the law requires. But inspectors - themselves not aware of the holds until they read them in HANSEN - would tell contractors they were not able to inspect, inspectors said. They suggested contractors contact the task force.
But various contractors interviewed said it was virtually impossible to contact the task force.
So they built their buildings.
"Contractors have their careers invested in these jobs," said Bob Solvible, L&I commissioner from 2004 through 2008. "If inspectors aren't coming out, builders will continue to build. No contractor will stop work or he'll go bankrupt."
That's why holds "made no sense," Solvible said. "I never used them."
Another person highly knowledgeable of L&I practices asked:
"Why would you institute a policy that handcuffs building inspectors from inspecting the safety of buildings? How could you allow a database function to shut down your business?"
He concluded: "This happens because you have people running things who don't understand code enforcement."
Grossman responded that the commissioner never ordered holds to prohibit inspectors from doing their jobs.
In December 2014, upon learning that some building inspectors "were not performing their inspections" because of task force holds, Grossman wrote, Williams ordered an end to the practice.
No trace of the holds was left in the system. The Inquirer obtained computer screen shots of some holds before they were gone from HANSEN.
Grossman indicated that holds no longer appeared in the system because after fines were paid, HANSEN "irretrievably overwrote" the notations.
Inspectors offered a different interpretation.
"The holds on 500 properties magically disappeared in a weekend after an emergency meeting when the commissioner suddenly said to get rid of them after he heard The Inquirer was asking questions," an inspector said. "I participated myself; I got rid of holds.
"It was absolutely a purge, and it became a cover-up because no record of the holds is left."
The disappearance of the holds makes it impossible to know whether other buildings that had been flagged were built without inspections.
"That's a major problem," according to Jim Dollard, a member of the Mayor's Special Independent Advisory Commission on the Center City building collapse in June 2013. Dollard, safety coordinator for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Local 98, interviewed employees about how L&I is run for the commission and became a confidant of several inspectors.
"How do so many holds just disappear?" asked Dollard, who said he saw all the notations before they were taken out of HANSEN.
"I was appalled. The tragedy is we have to rely on L&I employees who came forward about the holds to tell us safety is not Job One at L&I."
Grossman did not respond to Dollard's remarks.