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Another city employee found preying on immigrants

A woman working in the Los Angeles Housing Department collected payoffs from Korean Americans, authorities say. She received a sentence and could face more penalties.

October 16, 2011|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • Eun Chavis, convicted in a bribery scheme, appears in court with her attorney, Matthew Kohn.
Eun Chavis, convicted in a bribery scheme, appears in court with her attorney,… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Glen Lim and his mother were anxious to find someone who could explain how their apartment building in Mid-Wilshire had gotten into so much trouble with Los Angeles housing inspectors — and what they could do to fix the problem.

Eun Chavis seemed like the perfect answer. She was smart, a veteran city employee and a Korean American who spoke the only language Lim's mother, the manager of his building, understood.

But instead of bringing the building into compliance, Chavis used her position at the Los Angeles Housing Department's Koreatown office to collect $16,000 in payoffs from Lim and his family, according to criminal court records, police reports and interviews.

By the time she was arrested, Chavis had allegedly demanded $27,000 from other victims who spoke limited English and were trying to navigate the city bureaucracy.

Chavis' case is the third to surface in recent months involving a city employee accused of preying on immigrant communities they were supposed to be helping.

To some, it shows how public agencies can become vulnerable to such misconduct in multiethnic Los Angeles, where cultural and language barriers can make illegal behavior harder to detect.

A well-publicized corruption investigation in the Department of Building and Safety has led to convictions of two Spanish-speaking inspectors who preyed on Latino contractors, records show. Last year, a Korean landlord who spoke limited English alleged in a lawsuit that a Korean-speaking Building and Safety supervisor advised him to resolve his city inspection problems by paying $15,000 to a company with which the supervisor had ties. The city employee settled the case and retired in May.

"To me, this is like a decay inside the bone," said Councilman Ed Reyes, who said the recent cases point to the need for better supervision of employees dealing with housing and building issues. "We need to find where the decay exists and learn from it. How did this person get away with it?"

City officials and community leaders say immigrant victims of corruption are often hesitant to speak out because of either fear of the repercussions or uncertainty about when an authority figure has crossed a line. "When you're bridging two cultures, you don't know what the norms are," said Grace Yoo, executive director of the nonprofit Korean American Coalition. "You don't know that someone is taking advantage of you."

Moreover, foreign-born residents who run into problems with local agencies may be conditioned by experiences in their homelands to accept graft as a solution, officials say.

Chavis' case is remarkable, investigators said, because she was a clerk typist with no real authority. But she was the only Korean speaker working the counter at the Housing Department's office on Wilshire Boulevard. That made her the first point of contact for landlords, including immigrants like Lim trying to move up the economic ladder by investing in rental units.

Lim, who moved to the United States with his family in 1990, suspects that Chavis demanded money from more victims than the few identified by police. Yet Housing Department officials said they never tried to determine whether that was true, partly because Chavis' communications with customers weren't closely monitored.

"We simply don't know what interactions she had," said Roberto Aldape, the department's assistant general manager. "People come to the public counter all the time, so there would be no way to track it."

Chavis was charged last year with 11 felony bribery counts. An arrest warrant has been issued for her husband, Frank Max Chavis, who was charged with five related bribery counts. He has remained in South Korea and out of reach of police.

In a deal with prosecutors, Eun Chavis pleaded no contest to a single felony bribery count and spent less than a month in jail. She finished her one-year sentence at home with a monitoring bracelet but faces the possibility of additional penalties for a probation violation.

Los Angeles Police Lt. Mathew St. Pierre, head of the commercial crimes division, said he couldn't speak officially for the department, but he was personally unhappy with the outcome. "The punishment didn't fit the crime," he said.

Chavis' lawyer, Matthew Kohn, would not discuss the specific victims but argued that those who give bribes are as culpable as those who accept them. He also said his client had been punished enough. "She is staying at home, doing nothing. She's unemployable. It's very hard on her," he said.

Citations received

For Lim and his mother, 62-year-old Jeom Kum Yun, the trouble began in 2006, when they started receiving citations from Housing Department inspectors. The Lims had added extra units to their property without the necessary approvals.

Lim's mother turned to Chavis, whom she had met at a Christmas party.

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