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Connected Builders in L.A. Get a Fast Track

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety has given special treatment to dozens of construction projects sought by political insiders, including nine current and former city commissioners and donors to the mayor and City Council, records show.

The department assigned the projects to the little-known Case Management Unit set up years ago to speed large and complex construction jobs, such as public schools and affordable housing. By sidestepping the standard permitting process, big developers can avoid delays that might otherwise cost them millions of dollars.

Some of the insider projects are large, such as a 40-story condominium and commercial tower on Wilshire Boulevard sought by architect Pedro Birba, who is also a Building and Safety commissioner.

Others are small or involved applicants’ homes, such as the duplex owned by a public relations executive who contributed to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a church expansion sought by Building and Safety Commission President Javier Nunez.

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Building and Safety Department General Manager Andrew Adelman refused this week to answer questions about the unit and its assistance to commissioners.

But agency spokesman Robert Steinbach flatly denied that department decisions are influenced by whether an applicant is a city commissioner or a political donor.

“It’s not who you are, it’s what the project is,” Steinbach said. “The decision to include a project in the Case Management Unit is based on the complexity and sensitivity of the project and whether it needs handling to be guided through the process. It has nothing to do with who called it in.”

Steinbach said the special unit was formed to assist many kinds of complex projects and it was only a coincidence that some involved commissioners and donors to city politicians.

Building and Safety officials said the unit is available to anyone, but they acknowledge that its existence is not publicized on the department’s website or at its main permit application counter. On Thursday, counter workers were unable to provide a brochure, fact sheet or any other information explaining the program.

Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said it was unfair that most residents must wade through the normal city bureaucracy for building permits and plan checks while political insiders take a fast track through a special office.

“It looks like insider favoritism,” Westen said.

He was particularly concerned about commissioners getting special treatment, adding, “It does suggest to me that if you get one of these appointments, your projects will move faster.”

In addition to Nunez and Birba, those who have had projects assigned to the special unit in the last year include former Building and Safety Commission President Scott Adler, city Information Technology Commissioner Ana Cubas, Productivity Commissioner Lee Turner, former Planning Commission President Ted Stein, former Recreation and Parks Commissioner Christopher Pak and former Animal Regulation Commissioner and City Hall lobbyist Steven Afriat.

The unit also helped campaign donors to Villaraigosa and council members, including Bernard C. Parks and Greig Smith.

Los Angeles land-use consultant Craig Lawson, who has helped develop a number of large buildings, said that going through the special unit on one recent project took five months -- but it otherwise could have taken up to nine.

For large developments, where the owner is holding expensive properties and construction contracts, Lawson said, a delay can cost $100,000 or more per month.

The Case Management Unit was created in 1997 after a blue ribbon panel found inefficiencies within the building and safety agency, Steinbach said.

The unit was given the task of handling large and complex projects, including those that added to the city’s stock of affordable housing and contributed significantly to economic development. It was also asked to expedite public school construction.

Of the 47,000 projects processed by the department last year, 99% went through the normal bureaucracy, requiring the project’s private construction manager to apply for permits separately at the counters of various agencies, including the building, fire, planning and transportation departments.

Only 463 projects were assigned to the Case Management Unit, including 65 school construction jobs.

Whenever the unit steps in, a single department employee is assigned to help get all permit approvals in a way that can cut processing times in half. The case manager calls a meeting of representatives from all involved city departments, where potential problems are identified and hashed out so they won’t cause delays. The departments then process their permits simultaneously.

Department records show that Building and Safety Commission President Nunez sought to expand a church on West Osborne Street in Arleta, in the northeastern San Fernando Valley.

A labor leader, minister and board member with Victory Outreach Ministries, Nunez was appointed to the city panel in 2004.

Of 40 special unit cases reviewed by The Times, Nunez’s small church was one of only a few projects that drew the direct attention of Adelman. The Building and Safety Department general manager participated in a conference call with Nunez and case manager Juan Linares and asked to be kept up on progress. Linares invited representatives of seven city departments to a meeting on the project, and in an indication that he knew he was dealing with a political appointee, he later sent an e-mail to other officials saying he helped “Commissioner Nunez with planning application submittal.”

Nunez denied this week that he received special treatment as a commissioner and said the building and safety unit is “not about preferences.

“It’s about reaching out and helping people,” Nunez said. “I may be a commissioner, but I don’t have all the answers” about what the permitting process entails.

Nunez said the unit has also helped other churches and is available to any applicant.

Commissioner Birba has had two projects assigned to the special unit since he was appointed by Villaraigosa in August 2005. In addition to the condo and commercial tower at 1111 Wilshire Blvd., he also was the applicant for a 45-unit affordable housing project on North Alvarado Street.

Victor Cuevas was assigned as case manager for Birba’s Wilshire Boulevard proposal, but department higher-ups took the unusual step of also getting involved. “I will be working closely with Victor to ensure any potential major issues will be covered in the study,” wrote Art Wong, an assistant chief for the department, in an e-mail to Birba. Responded Birba, in an e-mail to Cuevas, “Please review my notes relative to your analysis and let me know if you agree.”

Birba -- who directly or through his companies has contributed $8,900 to city politicians, including $2,000 to Villaraigosa -- eventually withdrew as the architect on that project. But he said he has received help from the unit on about eight other projects. Most of those went through before he became a commissioner, which he said proves that his role as a political appointee was not a factor in the two cases that were assigned since his appointment.

Birba said the department might well want to publicize the unit’s existence on its website, but he denied it was being misused to benefit political insiders.

“I consider the Building and Safety Department one of the finest city departments out there, and I believe that the department would not allow itself to be misused,” Birba said.

Afriat, the former animal regulation commissioner, owns a lobbying firm that represents four projects being handled by the special unit, including an application to open a “sexual encounter establishment” -- a bathhouse -- at 3042 Rosslyn St., near Glendale.

Afriat said his staff asked for special unit assistance because they were having trouble getting city approvals.

Afriat said an aide also put Adelman’s name down on the application as the person who referred the case because Afriat and Adelman have a good working relationship.

“If I feel a project is entitled to a little extra help, we will ask for it,” Afriat said of the unit.

When elected officials have friends or constituents seeking building department approvals, their aides also sometimes collaborate with building officials to help get permits.

When a five-story office project in Chatsworth was proposed by contributors to Councilman Smith, his Northridge district deputy director sent several e-mails pressing the department for action.

The aide, Sandy Clydesdale, pushed the project so hard that one department official wrote to a co-worker that he had “received third separate request” in months from the aide “to assist with grading delays.”

In one e-mail, Clydesdale wrote: “Don’t know who is on vacation and who is not but I need some answers/help on this please.”

Smith said he wasn’t aware that anyone involved in the project by Telesis Community Credit Union had donated to his campaign, and that any special attention was justified because the project is important to the city’s economy.

“This is a big employer in the district,” the councilman said.

When a Building and Safety inspector found in 2004 that permits were lacking for a room in a duplex owned and lived in by public relations executive Tony Torres, then-Villaraigosa aide Lisa Sarno stepped in to assist.

Torres is an executive with Diverse Strategies for Organizing, and he and his firm have contributed $2,250 to Villaraigosa’s campaigns.

Torres said he called Sarno because she is a friend. He credited her with helping him get extra time -- he was given more than two years -- to deal with the citation.

He tore down the unit a few weeks ago after The Times called to ask about its status.

“They could have made me sweat bullets and say, ‘Do it now,’ but they were patient,” Torres said of the city. “Lisa was very good about that. Maybe she had something to do with that.”

The special unit also took up the case of Fabiola Vilchez, an aide to Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) and now a city area planning commissioner.

Vilchez was buying a three-unit housing development when she realized one unit was not permitted.

Department officials received an e-mail on her behalf in September 2004 from Mirta Ocana, a city housing official.

“Fabiola is a friend of mine and also the field director for ... Goldberg, who is my old boss,” Ocana wrote. “I would appreciate it if you could give her a call as soon as possible.”

In the nearly two years since, Building and Safety has issued a permit for repair work, but Vilchez said she has not been able to afford to bring the illegal unit into compliance.

Others helped by the special unit are big political donors.

Lee Turner, who has had three projects assigned to the unit, contributed $7,000 last year to Councilman Parks’ unsuccessful campaign for mayor.

With two Parks aides advocating for his project, Turner received help from Building and Safety’s special unit for a 35-unit condominium project on Vernon Avenue.

Another project helped by the special unit is an expansion of Keyes Motors, which along with its lobbyist and employees made $70,500 in contributions during the last seven years to city politicians and has provided $470 worth of tickets to sporting events to Adelman during that period.

Westen, of the Center for Governmental Studies, questioned the amount of time the special unit spent on assisting cases like these.

“The city,” Westen said, “shouldn’t be providing special treatment based on who knows this [unit] exists.”


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