Two Los Angeles city building inspectors were arrested Friday on suspicion of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for approving and fast-tracking construction projects by signing off on inspections that in some cases never took place.
FBI agents arrested Hugo Joel Gonzalez, 49, of Eagle Rock and Raoul Joseph Germain, 59, of Altadena after an investigation that began with a tip from a confidential informant last summer.
The informant, a work site manager for a large residential property developer, was a participant in the sting operation, working with an undercover agent who posed as a contractor named "Manny Gonzalez."
Hugo Gonzalez accepted $9,000 in bribes from the undercover agent and informant, while Germain took $6,000 from the agent during the investigation, according to affidavits filed with the criminal complaints.
The case has the potential to reach far beyond the two arrests, the affidavits suggest. The informant spoke of paying as many as 40 monetary bribes to building inspectors and called the problem "systemic" at the city agency.
In some cases, the informant said, building inspectors accepted materials and labor for their personal homes. In one instance, the unnamed informant paid for an inspector's vacation, according to the affidavit.
The informant "never refused to pay a bribe in connection with any such property," because the payments were the only way to avoid delays and, with some inspectors, the "only way to pass inspections required in connection with residential construction projects," according to the affidavit.
The city workers inspected homes and duplexes in South Los Angeles
Attorneys for both defendants declined to comment. Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Akrotirianakis declined to say whether officials expect to make additional arrests as a result of the investigation.
Gonzalez and Germain were placed on paid administrative leave effective Feb. 28, roughly a month after the Department of Building and Safety received its own anonymous tip, city officials said. The department referred the matter to the LAPD and City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, said Robert "Bud" Ovrom, general manager of the Department of Building and Safety.
"We appreciate the involvement of the FBI, but we were already far down the road on this investigation before we learned of the FBI's involvement," Ovrom said.
Germain joined the department in 2005 and earns just over $90,000 per year. Gonzalez was hired in 2006 and earns nearly $88,000 annually. Both men were assigned to South Los Angeles and were responsible for evaluating elements of construction projects considered critical to the safety of a building's inhabitants, including the foundation, electrical wiring and fire alarms.
In some cases, according to the court documents, they signed off on permits without setting foot on the work site.
Council members said Friday they want to know if the city department has a deeper problem. Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes part of South Los Angeles, called the allegations "deplorable" and said the residents deserve housing that meets the highest safety standards.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety said his agency has determined that the homes at the center of the investigation meet safety standards.
If convicted, the two men face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Germain was released on a $100,000 bond on the condition that he resolve an outstanding warrant on a traffic ticket. Gonzalez, deemed a flight risk by the judge because of his frequent travel to Mexico, remains jailed.
According to the affidavit, Gonzalez told the informant to wire him money because he was in Colima, Mexico. During one recorded meeting with the informant, Gonzalez complained about a woman employed by the same contractor the informant worked for and said, "I'm telling you, I'll kill her and go back to Mexico."
In another recorded exchange, Germain advised the FBI's undercover agent — still posing as a subcontractor — to hide the fact that no inspections had been performed, going so far as to hand him a written cover story, according to the affidavit. Germain also said he was immune from disciplinary action from the Building and Safety Department because he already worked in the most undesirable part of the city.