Troubled School Inspectors Slip Through State's Oversight
6:31 AM, Apr 10, 2011
As far as officials at the Rancho Santa Fe School District knew, Richard Vale had a reliable work history when they hired him in 2009 to inspect a top-to-bottom reconstruction of R. Roger Rowe Elementary and Middle School.The Division of the State Architect had approved Vale to inspect public school and community college projects in 2005, without ever checking his background. But Vale had been convicted of a felony in a construction safety case and fired from the inspector program in the city of Los Angeles.Prosecutors had in the early 1990s accused Vale of knowingly overlooking unsafe seismic anchors installed in the walls of numerous unreinforced masonry buildings throughout Los Angeles. He pleaded no contest to conspiracy to obstruct justice.Despite this, the state architect's office allowed Vale to monitor the $37 million Rancho Santa Fe job. Contractors built a new performing arts center, music room, and technology and science labs. They replaced old portable classrooms with two-story buildings revamping a campus now large enough for 850 students.The state architect's office in 2007 also approved Vale to inspect the $10 million construction of a new gym, locker room and swimming pool at Palo Verde College in Riverside County. And that same year, he worked as the welding inspector on a $2 million renovation project at Needles High School in San Bernardino County."If they let this guy through, what else is going on out there that we don't know about?" said Doug Devine, an inspector with the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, who assisted in the criminal investigation of Vale. "What other corners are they cutting? What other safety issues are being ignored?"Vale isn't the only school building inspector who has slipped through the state's loose system of oversight, a California Watch investigation has found.Nearly 300 inspectors have been cited by the state for work-related deficiencies. But at least two thirds were allowed to keep monitoring school construction jobs, a review of state performance ratings shows. For decades, the state kept these ratings confidential until California Watch fought for their release.Internal e-mails, project records and other documents show that multiple inspectors working on school construction jobs have been accused of filing false reports with state regulators and failing to show up during key moments of construction.Some inspectors missed safety defects that were later discovered by state field engineers.Inspectors overlooked unsafe wiring connections, unsecured anchor bolts, faulty framing, and flaws in steel frames that "could have resulted in extremely unsafe buildings," according to inspector performance ratings. One inspector working on an elementary school library missed a major detail considered critical for resisting seismic forces.Unlike standard construction projects, which use city or county inspectors, public school and community college building projects are monitored by a special network of 1,500 inspectors trained in the Field Act, California's landmark seismic safety law.School districts hire these inspectors. Field engineers, who work for the Division of the State Architect, supervise their work. Districts pay $70 to $100 an hour for the services of an inspector, and pay the state thousands of dollars for field engineers on each project.One Bay Area district paid the state architect's office nearly $6,000 for a field engineer who never showed up during the construction of a dozen elementary school buildings, records show.In an interview, acting State Architect Howard "Chip" Smith said there is "room for improvement" in the inspector oversight program, but he defended it as generally effective."The field engineers, by and large, know their inspectors and their territory," he said. "They work with them on a regular basis. They know their capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, and that has been predominantly how the system worked."But former state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber said the state architect's office lacks the will to discipline school inspectors and that compromises safety."There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that as we sit here today that there are situations going on where an inspector is pressured to approve something that they didn't," said Lieber, a Santa Clara County Democrat and frequent critic of Californias inspector programs. "Or a project is kept moving, when it really shouldn't be."The state has rated the performance of nearly 1,800 inspectors over the past three decades. Most received passing marks. But 297 inspectors were written up for poor performance. They either received "unsatisfactory" marks or were told their work needed improvement. California Watch found, at least 66 percent were approved for additional jobs.On 43 percent of the rating forms reviewed by California Watch, field engineers with the state architect's office stated they could not assess the performance of inspectors under their watch because of "insufficient contact."All of the Division of the State Architect's regional offices are missing rating files on active inspectors. The Los Angeles office has largely abandoned the practice of reviewing inspectors. It filed performance ratings on only a fraction of its projects.Smith, the acting state architect, downplayed the ratings' value."The rating form is simply a perfunctory role function at the end of the project," he said. "In the real world of interaction between DSA (the Division of the State Architect) and the inspectors, they are continuously rated through the entire process."The state has acknowledged the failure of its own field engineers to show up on worksites blaming its small staff and enormous workload. The state employs 25 field engineers who oversee more than 3,100 active building projects. Under the state's Field Act, public school and community college inspectors must provide continuous inspection, sometimes working eight hours a day to make sure the construction conforms to approved plans. The law requires inspectors to check things such as the size of bolts and the strength of concrete and steel.But the state has struggled to manage the workload of school inspectors.Consider the case of Wayne Edgin. In January 2009, a state field engineer gave Edgin an unsatisfactory grade on an inspection at Fischer Middle School in San Jose. The engineer noted that Edgin's work schedule was "excessive."That summer, the state architect's office denied approval to Edgin to inspect six additional projects because the office maintained it was more work than Edgin could adequately handle. Edgin worked the jobs anyway.Rather than discipline him, a regional manager with the state architect's office and other staff members met with Edgin to discuss his performance. Edgin signed a resolution agreeing to follow code requirements.A year later, the state discovered Edgin was in the early stages of inspecting nine projects at schools stretching across a 60-mile swath of the Bay Area. Five projects cost $5 million or more.In documents, the state architect's office noted one critical project where Edgin was needed full time, all day for at least a month a solar-power installation at two high schools in Morgan Hill.The state architect's office removed Edgin from three of the nine jobs. Edgin sued, saying the divisions judgment of "too much work" was arbitrary and unscientific. The complaint alleged he had lost $180,000 in potential income as a result.Edgin remains an active, certified inspector.In an interview, Edgin said he could have adequately inspected all nine of the school projects because the timing of construction on each varied. And he contended that the state architect's office had given him permission in 2009 to inspect multiple jobs."They've never been in the (construction) field," Edgin said about the state's field engineers. "They're structural engineers. I know how long it takes."
Story Written By Erica Perez and Corey G. Johnson California WatchReporters Kendall Taggart, Anna Werner and Krissy Clark contributed to this story. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Joanna Lin.
California Watch, the states largest investigative reporting team, is a project of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Contact the reporters at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.