The U.S. attorney on Wednesday filed a single bribery charge against a retired inspector at the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, making him the third employee of the agency to face federal criminal prosecution in less than two years.
Samuel In, 65, agreed to plead guilty to a count of felony bribery stemming from a 2008 incident in which he accepted $5,000 in cash from a Koreatown businessman, according to documents filed in federal court.
As part of his plea agreement, In admitted to accepting more than $30,000 worth of bribes involving at least a dozen properties that he handled in his official capacity between March 2007 and December 2010, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Akrotirianakis. All were in or around Koreatown.
The plea agreement depicts In, who is fluent in Korean, as someone who took advantage of a businessman whose limited English had made it hard for him to navigate the city's permitting process. "He's admitted that he used his official position to solicit monetary payments from people who had limited abilities in speaking English," Akrotirianakis said.
In could receive up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
The case comes three years after the FBI launched an undercover sting operation into bribes given in exchange for building permits. Two department employees pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in 2011 and were sentenced to prison. At least two others have been fired in connection with the probe, although one is fighting his termination, city officials said.
While working as a senior inspector, In solicited bribes from a businessman identified only as T.C., according to paperwork filed by prosecutors. T.C. had difficulty speaking English and conferred with In as he sought city permission to convert an office on Vermont Avenue into a retail store, Akrotirianakis said.
In, a 37-year employee of Building and Safety, demanded consulting fees from T.C. and told him that if payments were made by check, the payee part of the check should be left blank, according to the plea agreement. The senior inspector also told T.C. that checks written to the Department of Building and Safety "would not be useful," according to the document. T.C. ultimately paid cash.
After the payments were made, T.C. convinced In to put his initials on a receipt showing that he had received $5,000 in fees between May and December 2008, according to prosecutors.
In, a resident of Glendale, retired in May 2011. He left his job two days after Building and Safety General Manager Robert "Bud" Ovrom put him on administrative leave as part of the agency's internal investigation into allegations of wrongdoing.
Harold Greenberg, In's lawyer, said his client had decided to "face the consequences." But he disputed the notion that his client had taken advantage of Korean-speaking immigrants.
"It's a shame his career has to end his way, after the work he had done and the respect he had earned. That's basically evaporated," Greenberg said.
In is not the only city employee to be accused of preying on Korean immigrants in recent years. In 2010, Eun Chavis, a clerk in the city's Housing Department, was accused of demanding money from Korean landlords trying to resolve their permitting problems, according to court documents. She was convicted on a felony bribery charge.
The Times first reported a year ago that In was the subject of an FBI investigation. Gregory Glover, a former building inspector who had been assigned to the Koreatown area at the same time as In, said he told the FBI that In repeatedly interfered with his efforts to take action against owners of single-family homes that had illegal residential units or other unpermitted work.
Glover said that in 2005 or 2006, In showed up at a property on Crenshaw Boulevard where he was already conducting an inspection and asked him to take a tea break at the Rotex, a hotel-restaurant on Olympic Boulevard. Partway into the break, In put an envelope of money on the table and asked him to begin "working" with him, according to Glover.
Glover said he refused to take the envelope.
The FBI launched its investigation into Building and Safety in 2010, using an undercover agent who posed as a contractor to get recordings of inspectors soliciting and accepting bribes. During that operation, one confidential informant told agents that bribes were "systemic" at the agency and described giving cash, building materials and even a vacation in exchange for city approvals, according to affidavits filed by investigators.
That year, investigators issued a subpoena seeking documents on In and several other department employees. Meanwhile, In was also named in a breach-of-contract lawsuit involving a Koreatown construction company.
In 2010, landlord Kyong Ho Cho sued In, saying In had advised him to pay a company $15,000 to resolve his permitting problems with the city's Housing Department. In the lawsuit, Cho alleged that he paid In the money but that In never followed through with the help. Cho's lawsuit also claimed that In told him he had a business partnership with the company that received the money, Max Construction.
Max Construction's lawyer, Michael Sinkov, told The Times last year that Cho's case was "totally meritless." Sinkov said In was dropped from the case after he agreed to pay a $10,000 settlement.