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Joan Whitely

Report not confined to resort complaints

9 April 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The controversial Kessler Report, which documented problems on how county inspectors handle building safety complaints, covered a lot more than the several notorious instances of unapproved remodeling at the Rio and Harrah's Las Vegas.

In the report's appendix, large hotels accounted for 13 of the 42 additional complaints relating to building safety that consultant Michael Kessler also examined.

Caesars Palace, The Mirage, Tropicana, the Wynn and the Sands Expo Center affiliated with the Venetian were among the subjects of hotel-related complaints. Kessler's report explains the content of each complaint and how it was handled, but does not prove whether the complaints had merit.

Six days after the report's release March 12, county officials moved to form a 20-person investigation team to examine construction defects and complaints. But while most of the publicity fell on certain hotels, a more leisurely reading of Kessler's report shows problems in non-resorts, too.

Residential properties accounted for 13 complaints that Kessler cited for questionable handling. Most of the residential properties were some form of multi-family housing, such as apartments, condos and a timeshare.

However, five of those residential properties, all named in complaints for potential fire hazards, were either single-family residences or, in one case, a group home.

Commercial properties were the largest subset of complaints, 16, that Kessler zeroed in on. That category includes stores, offices and restaurants.

Kessler's complaint-process audit looked only at complaints that went to the county's building division or fire department. Most of the complaints came in 2006.

Also included were two complaints about The Mirage, from 2004 and 2005, which alleged that "substantial work (was) being done without permits," Kessler wrote.

The complainant, described by the consultant as a female electrician who was working at the hotel when she filed the complaints, claimed The Mirage pulled no permits to build a new welding shop on the premises, to remodel a spa or to remodel a buffet that entailed gas and steam lines. She also alleged that electrical transformers were installed without permit or inspection.

In the case of The Mirage, Kessler found contradictory paperwork on file at the county. Documents said the complaint was closed, but county personnel could not find the violation notice mentioned in the paperwork.

Kessler interviewed the woman, and according to his report, "She and the inside (Mirage) engineer were never contacted by anyone from building division concerning the complaint," despite a file notation that an inspection supervisor had done so.

Alan Feldman, an MGM-Mirage executive spokesman, said Monday that while some of the 2005 work was incorrectly started without permits, eventually the property did obtain permits for all the work.

The report erroneously calls The Mirage "the MGM Mirage Resort and Casino," but when the Review-Journal phoned Kessler, he said his copies of county paperwork give 3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd. -- the address of The Mirage -- as the site.

Two county employees that the Kessler Report portrayed in a bad light, Richard Maddox and James Braddock, have both recently left their county jobs. The report had identified individuals generically, by their job title plus a numeral, but Clark County later released a key of specific names corresponding to the generic references, with the caveat it did not take responsibility for the truth of Kessler's assertions.

Maddox was a supervising building inspector who handled a complaint that electrician Fred Frazzetta had filed in August 2006 about what he believed to be illegal remodeling the year prior at the Rio. Maddox closed the complaint as unfounded in February 2007, but county inspectors later found multiple instances of undocumented remodeling, some of it shoddy, at the hotel.

Braddock, an inspector, appeared in Kessler's report for repeatedly doing inspections that went outside his assigned territory or his expertise.

Several other inspectors besides Maddox or Braddock also crop up frequently in the Kessler Report's appendix, linked to what the consultant characterizes as problematic responses to specific complaints.

The name Lloyd Lasham, the county's only special assignment section commercial combination inspector, appears on 12 pages of the report's appendix. Rodney Mahaffey, a supervising building inspector, is mentioned on seven pages, including some that deal with remodeling in a Harrah's Las Vegas guest tower, and the same hotel's outdoor Carnival Court.

On a lighter note, three homes owned by a local eccentric, retired neurosurgeon Lonnie Hammargren, also pop up in complaints to the fire department in 2007. They alleged a fire hazard related to accumulation of what the report termed "debris, hardware, and miscellaneous objects" on the properties, at 4282, 4300 and 4318 Ridge Crest Drive. Hammargren, a former state lieutenant governor, is known for collecting large artifacts that he considers to have historical or pop-culture importance. He often allows the public to tour his three side-by-side homes for free around Nevada Day.

Although the complainant claimed two small fires had occurred at the Hammargren addresses, an inspector closed that case on the same day he visited.

"There is no trash or debris visible on the property from a public way," the inspector wrote.

Most building complaints involving single-family homes don't go to the county's building division; they go through the county's public response office, which was outside the scope of Kessler's audit. However, several complaints about single-family homes hit Kessler's radar because they involved questions for fire inspectors to settle.

Processes to enforce building and fire safety are meant to "safe guard the lives of residents and an estimated 39.2 million visitors and tourists who travel annually to Las Vegas," the consultant wrote in an executive summary to his report.

A lack of internal controls or accountability allows inspectors, and others with a hand in enforcing building safety, to "circumvent the controls," the consultant warned.