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City Allowed Supervisors Illegal Wall

Violation: Molina received 10 orders to fix it. Case ended with the structure unchanged and $3,710 in fines unpaid.

April 14, 2002|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina and her husband broke Los Angeles city building laws at their hillside house for more than a decade and have not paid nearly $4,000 in resulting fines and fees, records and interviews show.

The city spared Molina and her husband, Ronald L. Martinez, from making costly repairs to a retaining wall that did not meet building and safety codes and was built without a permit in the Mount Washington district northeast of downtown.

The case lingered for 12 years. It reached top levels of the city Building and Safety Department and the office of then-City Atty. James K. Hahn before the department decided last year to let Molina and Martinez leave the wall in place with no changes.

That decision was made despite more than a dozen verbal warnings and written notices issued in previous years by city inspectors and investigators, who contended that the wall--built to create a flat yard on the hillside lot--was illegal and potentially hazardous.

The supervisor, who was previously a Los Angeles city councilwoman, and her husband, an affirmative action consultant, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Some veteran Building and Safety staffers said the city's handling of the case suggested favoritism.

"If we would make Mom and Pop L.A. tear down the wall, why not Ms. Molina and Mr. Martinez?" asked Building and Safety inspector Terry Burgin, who was the city's chief grading inspector assigned to the case in 1995. "I've seen the department take a hard line and require demolitions when the danger was comparable," Burgin said.

Building and Safety Department spokesman Robert Steinbach said Molina and Martinez received no special treatment.

"We look at projects as projects. We don't assign names to them. Laws are written for everybody to obey," he said.

Steinbach said the decision last year to leave the wall alone was based on a statement that year from a private engineer hired by Martinez, who said the fact that the 45-foot-long, 10-foot-high wall had not failed in 10 years proved its strength.

However, the engineer who wrote that report, Fernando Nunez, said in a 1993 report that the wall was built on loose soil and needed to be "underpinned" with concrete footings based in bedrock.

Based partly on that report, the city ordered Martinez and Molina to underpin the wall.

Because it was built on loose soil and not founded on bedrock as the code requires, inspectors feared that the wall was in danger of failing.

Inspectors also noted that it was beginning to crack.

When contacted by The Times, Nunez, now a private engineer, said he would review his file on the case to address why he changed his opinion on the wall. He did not return follow-up phone calls, however.

Molina and Martinez did not repair the wall after receiving 10 written orders from Building and Safety inspectors from 1993 to 1997.

In 1997, the department sent a 3-inch-thick file of allegations and evidence for legal action and possible criminal prosecution to Hahn.

But the city attorney did not pursue the case, and never collected $3,710 in fines, according to Building and Safety Department records.

They show that Charles Dickerson, a high-level Hahn aide who was a liaison to the City Council and city departments, handled the case. In April 1998, Dickerson met with Andrew Adelman, head of the department, to discuss the case.

Dickerson said he remembers meeting with Adelman and separately with Martinez, but he cannot recall the substance of those meetings.

Dickerson, a former president of the Board of Public Works, said it was not unusual for him to meet with the Building and Safety Department head to discuss problems with a single-family residence. Department spokesman Steinbach echoed that view.

Steinbach said he could not discuss the content of meetings between his department and the city attorney because of attorney-client privilege restrictions.

According to Steinbach, Hahn returned the case to Building and Safety on Feb. 3, 2000, saying there was not sufficient basis to pursue the case.

Steinbach said he could not elaborate on the city attorney's decision because of attorney-client privilege.

Mary McGuire, a spokeswoman for Hahn's successor, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, said she was unable to locate records on the case, which was concluded during the previous administration.

Though the construction issues at Molina's house were a private matter, Molina as a public official did not separate herself entirely from the case.

In 1990, while a City Council member, Molina sent a note regarding the wall to a city inspector on the case.

The handwritten note on city stationery read: "I swear there are steel bars between the blocks of our retaining wall." Molina said her husband "asked me to write this note. Let me know if you need anything else."

Later, when Molina was a county supervisor, one of her staff members, Sylvia Novoa, met with city officials to discuss the wall.

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