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Joan Whitely

Building and fire safety: Audit blasts inspectors

14 March 2008

NEVADA -- Clark County building and fire inspectors have been "derelict" in their duty to keep commercial buildings safe, according to a scathing outside audit released by the county Wednesday.

Falsified reports, inadequate record-keeping and favoritism toward commercial property owners were found by New York-based consultant Michael Kessler. His 97-page report is posted as "Kessler Report" on the county's Web site at

Inspectors' "general lack of concern and sense of urgency regarding complaints" demand a "significant change to ... current practices," Kessler wrote.

"A vast injustice" is his description of a discrepancy between how homeowners were treated, compared with owners of multifamily housing or commercial properties. The county regularly charged penalties and investigative fees to homeowners for violations that went through building inspectors, while it let commercial owners duck the fees. "Kessler recommends that penalties be assessed uniformly and consistently to all property owners who are guilty of violations," the report reads. Claims that some elected county leaders and inspectors have kowtowed to large property owners in ways that eroded building safety are also included.

"The failings need to be disclosed, and addressed," Ron Lynn said Wednesday afternoon about the audit, which the county received in its final form Tuesday night. Lynn supervises county building inspectors in his role as director of development services.

"These are going to result in personnel actions," is how County Manager Virginia Valentine described the step that county administrators will next take, which is to investigate the problems and possible problem employees pinpointed by Kessler. It is premature to say whether firings will result, she said.

Kessler recommended bringing law enforcement into the investigation. Valentine said the county shared the report Wednesday morning with representatives of Las Vegas police, the Clark County district attorney's office, the Nevada attorney general and the U.S. attorney's office.

The report is based, in part, on Kessler's analysis of complaints lodged during three months in 2006. He looked at the length of time from when a complaint was opened to when the targeted building was inspected, to when the complaint was closed.

Some complaints were not logged appropriately, according to Kessler. Statements by the individuals complaining were not always recorded accurately. "Resolutions were falsified," he wrote. In several instances, records gave dates claiming that cases were assigned and inspected before the dates complaints were received.

"And, proper and complete documentation" was not always kept, the consultant added, which means that documentation essential for determining liability, should a safety matter later land in court, went missing.

The Kessler report covered only how the county handles safety complaints about commercial buildings, not the process by which the Clark County Public Response Office -- CC PRO, for short -- handles most safety complaints about private dwellings.

Some commissioners "exerted undue influence" on fire department managers, according to an allegation Kessler received from lower fire department personnel, whom he interviewed but did not identify by name.

"Staff complained that on more than one occasion they were directed by (fire department) management not to write violations concerning life safety issues," the report said. Kessler did not delve into the behavior of commissioners because the scope of his contract was to examine handling of safety complaints.

As to inspectors, Kessler wrote he repeatedly was told that inspectors who check out safety complaints at hotels were reluctant to create a hostile relationship because the hotels gave them comps including "meals, show tickets, stays at other properties and branded clothing."

The county responded to Kessler's report by unveiling proposals it has been working on since autumn to revamp its building division and fire departments, which it will submit to county commissioners Tuesday.

Ethics training and classes in report writing and investigation techniques are recommended for some personnel by Kessler, steps that county administrators agree with.

"If they can't see that bright line (delineating ethical behavior from corrupt), they need to know where it is and what happens when they cross it," Valentine said. The Kessler report recommends the training; it is included in the staff proposal that commissioners will get Tuesday.

The county released Kessler's report in a form that identified employees only by job title and numeral, such as Building Inspector 9 or Supervising Inspector 2. But the Review-Journal pressed Wednesday for the identities, resulting in a decision by the district attorney's office to release names with a disclaimer that the county "does not take responsibility for the veracity" of Kessler's statements, whose accuracy the county could not yet verify by late Wednesday afternoon.

Supervisor Inspector 2 turned out to be Rick Maddox, the former county employee who handled the August 2006 complaint into remodeling without permits or inspections at the Rio. That matter triggered a Review-Journal exposé published in early October and led county commissioners in November to hire Kessler.

According to the audit, data from a global positioning device in Maddox's county vehicle showed it was parked at the Rio for 38 minutes on the day that Maddox claimed to have checked 37 guest rooms.

Maddox told Kessler that Rio staff changed the floor number appearing on the elevator's display to make it appear he was visiting the 19th floor, when in fact the elevator had stopped at the 18th floor.

"These people aren't completely honest," Maddox told Kessler, according to the audit.

County investigation eventually proved the newspaper's contention that regular rooms, on the 19th floor only, had been converted during remodeling to larger, fewer suites.

In a September incident at the Wonderful Massage Spa -- in a suite at 3880 Arville St., Kessler reported that James Braddock, called Inspector 9 in the report, had approved work done that did not match the building plans submitted.

The same inspector also, according to Kessler, worked out of his assigned geographic area, sometimes approving work that the assigned inspectors had rejected. GPS documentation indicated that Braddock approved some work without visiting the work sites, Kessler wrote. Kessler did not respond to telephone requests from the Review-Journal for an interview.

Harrah's Entertainment declined to comment on the report.

Its "chief litigation officer," later identified as Michael Kostrinsky, declined to let Kessler interview employees because "the county caused him problems with the (state) contractor's board, and thus he did not want to have to defend any other claims," the consultant wrote in his report.

District Attorney David Roger and Assistant Sheriff Mike McClary each said he planned to read the report before commenting on action his agency might take.

The report threatens to further undermine public trust in the commission, Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said. "There never should be any undue influence from commissioners or by management over an employee (responsible for) life-safety issues."

If warranted by the evidence, county employees should be terminated and prosecuted, Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said.

Rory Reid, who leads the commission, said he knew "the audit would focus on things that we don't do well, but (examining the system) is healthy."