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Building engineer suspected in bribery loses job

Investigators say Frank Rojas signed off on about 20 projects that were stamped with the seal of an official who had never seen the plans.

March 12, 2013|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times

A Los Angeles building department engineer suspected of taking as much as $60,000 while giving bogus approvals to new construction projects across South Los Angeles has lost his job, lawyers for the city said Monday.

In the latest development in a two-year series of corruption probes of the city Department of Building and Safety, investigators in the city attorney's office have forwarded information on Frank Rojas, a 23-year agency employee, to the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office.

Investigators concluded that Rojas signed off on an estimated 20 construction projects that were stamped with the professional seal of a licensed engineer who had never reviewed or seen the plans, said William Carter, chief deputy to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich. One contractor told investigators that over a three- to four-year period, he paid Rojas $1,500 to $1,800 each to prepare plans for single-family homes and $3,000 for duplexes, Carter said.

"According to the contractor, Rojas asked him to pay him in cash," he added.

Rojas has not been arrested or charged with a crime. His attorney, Robert Rico, said the city's allegations are untrue. "My client never took money from any person," Rico said.

The allegations against Rojas were disclosed on the same day another former Building and Safety Department employee, Samuel In, pleaded guilty in federal court to felony bribery. In, a building inspector in Los Angeles for 37 years, signed a plea agreement admitting that he accepted bribes at 11 other properties in and around Koreatown.

In retired two years ago, days after he was placed on administrative leave. Four others at the Building and Safety Department have been fired in the wake of the bribery investigation, officials said. Two of them, Hugo Gonzalez and Raoul Germain, have pleaded guilty to bribery charges.

Building and Safety officials fired Rojas in June 2011 after concluding that he falsified records. Rojas challenged that decision, which sparked nearly two years of hearings before personnel officers and the city's Civil Service Commission.

While the personnel case wore on, city investigators obtained new information. One contractor told city officials in a formal deposition that he paid Rojas cash to draw up plans, Carter said. Rojas then used another engineer's stamp to make it appear that a licensed engineer had reviewed and signed off on them, city officials asserted.

The stamp was originally owned by Felipe Segovia, a Torrance city employee, Carter said. "We talked to [Segovia] and he said he did not give permission to Mr. Rojas or anyone else to use his stamp," he added.

Carter said the projects that received the fraudulent engineer's stamp — and were approved by Rojas — listed Germain and Gonzalez as the inspectors. Segovia declined to comment, saying that he was unsure if the investigation had concluded.

Rojas' attorney said his client denies "using or owning a fraudulent stamp at any time."

Personnel officials called for a new termination hearing for Rojas last month, where they planned to present new information on the cash payments. But Rojas withdrew his appeal the night before his hearing, Carter said. Rico said his client dropped the appeal because he wanted to "move on with his life."

Building and Safety general manager Robert "Bud" Ovrom said his inspectors have checked the properties handled by Rojas and determined that they are structurally safe.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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