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Molina's Pool Is Under Scrutiny

Codes: Officials are investigating whether the county supervisor and her spouse had a permit and installed required safety equipment.

April 17, 2002|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles building officials, who allowed county Supervisor Gloria Molina and her husband to skirt building codes on a retaining wall at their house, said they are now investigating whether the couple broke the law by building a swimming pool there without a permit and without installing required safety equipment.

Building and Safety Department spokesman Robert Steinbach said the investigation began after the department was questioned by a Los Angeles Times reporter, who spotted the pool while covering a story that appeared Sunday about the disputed retaining wall at the hillside house in Mount Washington owned by Molina and her husband, Ronald L. Martinez.

City property records available to the public show no permits for the pool. Steinbach said the department was unaware of it until contacted by a reporter.

But Martinez said city officials have known of the pool since it was built in 2001, and that he received a city electrical permit for it.

Building and safety department officials "signed off on everything," he said.

Steinbach said it would have been illegal for Molina to build the pool without a permit if it is larger than 250 square feet and more than 2 feet deep.

Steinbach said the department has not been able to determine the size of the pool from a photograph that appeared in Sunday's editions of The Times.

The pool also apparently lacks a fence to keep children out, which is required if it is deeper than 18 inches.

Molina has declined to comment on the permit squabble. Martinez said Tuesday that he did not apply for building and mechanical permits for the pool because his pool contractor told him they were not required.

Martinez said city inspectors who visited his house to inspect other remodeling work saw his pool and never mentioned that it might be illegal.

"It's right there in the frontyard," he said.

An official at the department's code enforcement bureau also acknowledged that a complaint about the pool, made by an undisclosed person, is in the department's file.

Chief Building Inspector Bill King did not allow a reporter who visited the office in which the file is kept to view the complaint, and referred the reporter to Steinbach.

Steinbach refused to let the reporter see the file, saying it could compromise the department's investigation.

The reporter and Times Deputy General Counsel Karlene Goller told Steinbach the information must be released under state public-records laws, but Steinbach disagreed and referred the reporter to the city attorney's public information office.

City attorney spokeswoman Mary McGuire said that during an investigation, a department can require a written request for documents so that it can confer with attorneys before allowing the documents to be viewed.

Retaining Wall Disputed for Years

The pool is in a yard that is supported by the disputed retaining wall. For years, city inspectors contended that the wall, which holds back dirt poured onto the hillside to form the yard, was in danger of failing and needed repairs. But last year, top department officials allowed the wall to remain unchanged.

They have never collected $3,710 in resulting fines and fees from Molina and Martinez.

Martinez said he believed he did not have to pay the fines because he had resolved his dispute with the city over the wall. "It's their duty to collect fines, not mine. It was a noncompliance fee, and I was never noncompliant," Martinez said.

McGuire said notices regarding the fees were sent to Martinez in November 1997 and January 1998. McGuire said the city attorney's office also met with Alan Pinel, Martinez's attorney, in July 2000.

She said Pinel and the city attorney's office agreed at that time that Martinez would pay $1,500. McGuire said that amount was never paid.

McGuire said the money can no longer be collected because the statute of limitations has expired. She said statutory fees assessed by the city must be collected in three years, and the city's fees were levied in April 1997.

Martinez described his actions as a good-faith challenge to Building and Safety Department findings. "I have a right to take them on," he said. "Everything is legal. All of the house is legal."

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