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Suit alleges ex-L.A. building inspector sought payment in permit dispute

Samuel In, who was placed on leave in May from the city's Building and Safety Department, advised a property owner to pay $15,000 to get work on an unpermitted apartment unit approved, the lawsuit alleges.

June 03, 2011|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times

A former building inspector who has come under scrutiny in a bribery investigation at Los Angeles City Hall allegedly advised a landlord in 2009 to pay $15,000 to resolve a permitting dispute, according to a fraud lawsuit filed last year.

Kyong Ho Cho, 63, filed a case against Samuel In stemming from code enforcement violations at his rental property on Venice Boulevard, where inspectors had cited him for illegally building an apartment inside his garage.

Cho said In told him that In's business partner, Tae Seog Lee, would be able to fix the problem — which was caused by a previous contractor — for a fee, the lawsuit states. Cho also accused In of working with Lee on numerous occasions to defraud those who were in "vulnerable situations"— in trouble with city inspectors and lacking English-language skills.

In his lawsuit, Cho said that In presented his Department of Building and Safety business card at their first meeting two years ago. In, 63, promised to use his "official status" to get work on an unpermitted apartment unit approved, the complaint said.

"In represented to Cho that all he had to do is ask the employees at [Building and Safety] because he has 'tremendous influence over the employees because of the many years he was employed by the city as a senior official,'" the lawsuit states.

In, who worked for the city for more than 30 years, was placed on leave May 4 after an internal review of his work records and retired two days later, according to a city memo obtained by The Times. In's voice mail was full on Thursday, and he has not responded to requests for interviews left at residences listed in public records.

In's wife said he has lived at their hillside Glendale home for 23 years. However, he has been registered to vote since 2007 at a 23-room boarding house in Koreatown, L.A. County records show.

The lawsuit was filed months before the FBI arrested two building inspectors, Raoul Germain and Hugo Gonzalez, on suspicion of accepting bribes in exchange for granting approvals at construction sites. In April, a federal grand jury demanded personnel records on 12 current and former Building and Safety employees, including In, according to an official familiar with the case, who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. Germain and Gonzalez have already pleaded guilty.

David Lara, a Building and Safety spokesman, did not respond to questions submitted by The Times. But Michael Sinkov, a lawyer for Lee and his company, Max Construction, described Cho's case as "totally meritless." Cho dropped In from his case earlier this year after reaching a $10,000 settlement agreement with In, half of which has been paid, Sinkov said.

Sinkov said his client secured permits for Cho's garage project in August. Although In has referred Max Construction to potential clients in the past, In and Lee have "never, ever been in business together," Sinkov said.

Cho has continued to wage a case against Lee. Jason Chong, the attorney for Cho, said he has other clients who contend that they were victimized by In. So far, none of them have filed lawsuits.

Building and Safety officials issued a certificate of occupancy in January for Cho's garage that included a recreation room and a half bathroom, according to the agency's website. Housing department spokesman Rushmore Cervantes said he was unaware of Cho's legal case and the circumstances surrounding his property.

At the time Cho ran into his difficulties with the housing department, In was working in the building department's Van Nuys office. However, he was reassigned in February 2010 to handle code enforcement issues in such neighborhoods as Koreatown, Mid-City and Palms.

Chong said his client met with In after receiving a recommendation from a real estate agent. In the lawsuit, Cho alleges In did not want his name "involved in any way" in the project and asked for payments to go directly to Lee. In planned to split the fees later "under the table," the complaint alleges. "In stated to Cho that once Cho pays his partner Lee the fee, In would collect his share from" Max Construction, the lawsuit states.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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