Lax oversight from inspectors placing schools in danger

There are thousands of school construction projects throughout California and a network of more than 1,500 specially-trained inspectors are supposed to make sure buildings are built to plans. But public records uncovered by California Watch show many aren't doing their job.

Inspectors like David Bridi help keep contractors honest.

"You're making sure that the contractor and project management is performing the job and doing the job per the approved plans of DSA," says Bridi who believes many inspectors are encouraged by contractors to overlook changes to save money. "Contractors will try to use a substitute product or a lesser product. I'm saying 90 percent of the time, the contractor is trying to cut corners."

Inspectors are supposed to be the watchdogs of school construction projects, tested and licensed by the state. But is the state always doing its job? Take the case of Richard Vale.

"We couldn't trust anything that he did or said," says Los Angeles city inspector Doug Devine.

Devine reviewed Vale's work on a Los Angeles project that used seismic anchors, the metal rods that tie roofs and floors to walls and keep the building together in an earthquake.

"It was Richard Vale's job to ensure that the anchors were installed properly," says Devine.

But in over two dozen projects, Devine found makeshift seismic anchors. When the city tested them, they failed.

"We found out that it was only the deputy inspector, Richard Vale, who was allowing these anchors to be put in," he says.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office charged Vale with filing false reports. In 1997, Vale plead no contest to conspiracy to obstruct justice, a felony.

"I didn't want him out there ever inspecting anything in our city again," says Devine.

But that wasn't the end of Vale. Despite his conviction, the DSA allowed Vale to obtain a state inspection license. Sources and documents show as recently as last year, he oversaw major school construction projects.

"I couldn't believe it," says Devine.

Acting DSA director Chip Smith couldn't explain how Vale kept his license.

"Well, I'm not sure," says Smith. "I'm simply not sure of the details of this particular case."

In fact he doesn't know about the background of many inspectors because the DSA doesn't do criminal background checks.

"Our program, our process, our supporting regulations don't address that," he says. "I'm not saying it's not a good idea to look at that."

California Watch found nearly 300 school inspectors with documented problems over the last three decades. The issues ranged from absenteeism to failing to identify construction defects.

California Watch asked Smith whether the department could do more to watch over inspectors.

"I think it could be improved," he says. "Do I think it's an alarmist problem, right now at this moment? No. I don't."

Former state legislator Sally Lieber sees it differently.

"I don't agree that it's just a room for improvement situation," says Lieber. "All of the incentives are there to cut corners."

Lieber says because inspectors are actually hired by the districts they may face pressure to look the other way on projects to stay employed.

"The status quo gives the contractors and the local districts all the flexibility of the fox guarding the henhouse," she says.

More from California Watch on this story:

>> Investigation

>> Overview

>> Inspectors

>> Lobbying

>> Interactive Map
Shows seismic dangers facing schools around California

>> React/Act
Get involved or ask a question. Plus, tips on preparedness, a list of frequently asked questions and a parents preparedness checklist.

>> Interactive Timeline
See how the 19-month investigation developed in an interactive timeline complete with video, documents and more.

>> Historical Map of CA
See an interactive map of the history of California earthquakes since 1861 -- including their magnitudes, locations, and the damage caused.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

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