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Troubled school inspectors slip through state’s oversight

As far as officials at the Rancho Santa Fe School District knew, Richard Vale had a reliable work history when they hired him in 2009 to inspect a top-to-bottom reconstruction of R. Roger Rowe Elementary and Middle School.

The Division of the State Architect had approved Vale to inspect public school and community college projects four years earlier, without ever checking his background. But Vale had been convicted of a felony in a construction safety case and fired from the inspector program in Los Angeles.

Prosecutors had in the early 1990s accused Vale of knowingly overlooking unsafe seismic anchors installed in the walls of numerous unreinforced masonry buildings throughout Los Angeles. He pleaded no contest to conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Despite this, the state architect’s office allowed Vale to monitor the $37 million job in Rancho Santa Fe, a wealthy San Diego suburb. Contractors built a new performing arts center, music room, and technology and science labs. They replaced old portable classrooms with two-story buildings – revamping a campus now large enough for 850 students.

Courtesy Doug Devine/Los Angeles Department of Building and SafetyRichard Vale was certified by the state to inspect school construction despite having a felony conviction in a construction safety case. Vale is shown here on the day he was served with a search warrant in the 1990s.

The state architect’s office in 2007 also approved Vale to inspect the $10 million construction of a new gym, locker room and swimming pool at Palo Verde College in Riverside County. And that same year, he worked as the welding inspector on a $2 million renovation project at Needles High School in San Bernardino County. 

Vale declined interview requests, saying during a brief phone exchange that questions about his past had been "put to rest." Others are not so sure.

“If they let this guy through, what else is going on out there that we don’t know about?” said Doug Devine, an inspector with the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, who assisted in the criminal investigation of Vale. “What other corners are they cutting? What other safety issues are being ignored?”

Vale is not the only school building inspector who has slipped through the state’s loose system of oversight, a California Watch investigation has found. 

Nearly 300 inspectors have been cited by the state for work-related deficiencies. But at least two thirds were allowed to keep monitoring school construction jobs, a review of state performance ratings shows. For decades, the state kept these ratings confidential until California Watch fought for their release.

Internal e-mails, project records and other documents show that multiple inspectors working on school construction jobs have been accused of filing false reports with state regulators and failing to show up during key moments of construction.

Some inspectors missed safety defects that were later discovered by state field engineers. 

Inspectors overlooked unsafe wiring connections, unsecured anchor bolts, faulty framing, and flaws in steel frames that “could have resulted in extremely unsafe buildings,” according to inspector performance ratings. 

Unlike standard construction projects, which use city or county inspectors, public school and community college building projects are monitored by a special network of 1,500 inspectors trained in the Field Act, California’s landmark seismic safety law. 

School districts hire these inspectors. Field engineers, who work for the Division of the State Architect, supervise their work. Districts pay $70 to $100 an hour for the services of an inspector and pay the state thousands of dollars for field engineers on each project. 

One Bay Area district paid the state architect’s office nearly $6,000 for a field engineer who never showed up during the construction of a dozen elementary school buildings, records show.

In an interview, acting State Architect Howard “Chip” Smith said there is “room for improvement” in the inspector oversight program, but he defended it as generally effective.

"The field engineers, by and large, know their inspectors and their territory,” he said. “They work with them on a regular basis. They know their capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, and that has been predominantly how the system worked.”

But former state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber said the state architect's office lacks the will to discipline school inspectors – and that compromises safety.

“There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that as we sit here today that there are situations going on where an inspector is pressured to approve something that they didn't,” said Lieber, a Santa Clara County Democrat and frequent critic of California’s inspector programs. “Or a project is kept moving when it really shouldn't be.”

In the past three years, the state architect’s office has revoked only a single inspector’s license – a whistleblower from Fresno. Thomas Conway, who has since died, admitted in a legislative hearing that he had overlooked potentially dangerous problems. Two months later, then-State Architect David Thorman told Conway that he could no longer work on school construction projects.

Smith said the office requires inspectors to meet basic standards before they are certified. They must be at least 25 years old and have at least three years of work experience. But the state does not run criminal background checks or screen for a history of performance problems. It tests inspectors only on their ability to read construction plans and their knowledge of building codes.

One longtime inspector said the oversight system is broken.

Bruce Tyson-Flyn, a project inspector in San Jose for more than 20 years, said the division “shouldn’t be afraid at all to come out here and say, ‘This guy doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. Get him off this job. Shut it down.’ (That) doesn’t happen.”

Rating forms document poor performance

The value of sharp-eyed field engineers and experienced inspectors is undisputed. Field engineers frequently catch problems that inspectors have missed. In an earthquake, seemingly minor construction details overlooked by an inspector can affect the way a building holds up. 

“Ninety percent of the time, the contractor is trying to cut corners,” said David Bridi, a certified inspector who worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District until budget cuts prompted the elimination of about three dozen inspectors last year. 

“I’ve seen it in roofing material; I’ve seen it in flooring material; I’ve seen it in drywall material; I’ve seen it in framing material, concretes, rebars, down to fasteners,” Bridi added.

Marjorie McAfee/California WatchDavid Bridi, an inspector who worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District, says that contractors on school projects try to cut corners "90 percent of the time."

The state has rated the performance of nearly 1,800 inspectors over the past three decades. Most received passing marks for attendance, record keeping, knowledge of building codes and plans, and communication with builders and with the state architect’s office.

Records show that 297 inspectors were written up for poor performance. They either received  “unsatisfactory” marks or were told their work needed improvement. Yet, California Watch found, at least 66 percent were approved for additional jobs.

The state architect’s office has a written policy that says it can stop using individual inspectors who receive poor evaluations. But inspectors routinely have been able to avoid any kind of formal scrutiny.

On 43 percent of the rating forms reviewed by California Watch, field engineers with the state architect’s office stated they could not assess the performance of inspectors under their watch because of “insufficient contact.”

All of the Division of the State Architect’s regional offices are missing rating files on active inspectors. The Los Angeles office has largely abandoned the practice of reviewing inspectors. It filed performance ratings on only 210 building projects during the last decade – out of about 4,500 renovation, repair and new construction jobs. 

Across California, the state architect’s office has performance ratings for about 17,000 construction jobs during the last three decades. But since 1998, the division has approved more than 25,000 projects, from fire alarm upgrades to new construction of classrooms and gyms, leaving a large gap of projects without inspector performance reviews. 

Smith, the acting state architect, downplayed the ratings’ value.

“The rating form is simply a perfunctory role function at the end of the project,” he said. “In the real world of interaction between DSA (the Division of the State Architect) and the inspectors, they are continuously rated through the entire process.”

Field engineers struggle with caseload

The state architect’s office operates with a budget of about $60 million, much of it funded by fees from construction projects and inspector testing. The office employs 25 field engineers who oversee more than 3,100 active building projects.

Sandy Pringle, who runs a school inspection firm in Southern California, said he was surprised by how little contact field engineers have had with the inspectors they are supposed to be monitoring.

“I think that needs to be stepped up,” he said.

The state architect’s office has acknowledged the failure of its own field engineers to show up at worksites – blaming the enormous workload of its small staff.

According to a 2006 study by the Department of General Services, the parent agency of the state architect’s office, visits by field engineers to construction sites were “inadequate in number and quality to effectively observe and evaluate the project inspector and construction.”

That same year, another internal report written by field engineers warned that some school construction jobs had started without approved district inspectors on site or with unqualified assistant inspectors. 

The testing of concrete, masonry and soil was judged inadequate, while some jobs were finished with unspecified “dangerous construction flaws,” the report found.

In one 2004 case, a field engineer failed to appear during construction of a dozen new classroom buildings at Anna Kyle Elementary School in Fairfield.

The project file does not indicate any evidence of shoddy construction or incompetent work by the inspector, but taxpayers took a hit: The school district paid the state architect’s office $5,850 for the field engineer who did not show up.

The problems have mounted without any official response or discipline.

In 2002, Robert Marquez was assigned to inspect a $300,000 seismic upgrade to the auditorium building at Newhall Elementary School in the Santa Clarita Valley. But state field engineer Natwerlal Patel wrote in Marquez’s file that Marquez had not been present for either of his two oversight visits – including when contractors were installing the roof.

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According to Patel’s notes, a contractor said Marquez was frequently absent and stayed for only an hour or so when he did appear. Patel also discovered that Marquez submitted post-dated reports outlining his work over several two-week periods – before actually completing it.

In his review of Marquez’s performance on another project in 2002, at Hart High School in Newhall, Patel wrote that Marquez appeared “unappreciative of code regulations” and did not inform the state architect’s office when construction started or when concrete was to be poured, as the law requires.

Marquez continued to work on at least 19 more construction projects in Southern California over the next eight years – all but three of which had higher construction costs than the Newhall Elementary project did. Regulators did not rate him on these additional projects. 

For two of the jobs – a fire alarm upgrade at Marlton School for the hearing impaired in Los Angeles, and renovations to classroom buildings at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster – the state architect’s office has no documentation that a field engineer ever visited to review Marquez’s work.

Seven building projects that Marquez inspected are lacking Field Act certification from the state architect’s office, records show.

Marquez is still a certified inspector today. In an interview, Marquez said he showed up at each job site whenever he was needed and that his work was thorough and effective.

“I’m basically being judged on what one person said, and I never had a chance to rebut or discuss (what) that person wrote about me,” Marquez said. “If this was so critical, he would have called me and shut the job down.”

State worries about inspector’s workload

Under the state’s Field Act, public school and community college inspectors must provide continuous inspection, sometimes working eight hours a day to make sure the construction conforms to approved plans. The law requires inspectors to check things such as the size of bolts and the strength of concrete and steel.

But the state has struggled to manage the workload of school inspectors.

Consider the case of Wayne Edgin. In January 2009, a state field engineer gave Edgin an unsatisfactory grade on an inspection at Fischer Middle School in San Jose. The engineer noted that Edgin's work schedule was “excessive.” 

That summer, the state architect's office denied approval to Edgin to inspect six additional projects because the office maintained it was more than the inspector could adequately handle. Edgin worked the jobs anyway. 

Rather than discipline him, a regional manager with the state architect’s office and other staff members met with Edgin to discuss his performance. Edgin signed a resolution agreeing to follow code requirements.

A year later, the state discovered Edgin was in the early stages of inspecting nine projects at schools stretching across a 60-mile swath of the Bay Area. Five of the projects cost $5 million or more. 

In documents, the state architect’s office noted one critical project where Edgin was needed full time, all day for at least a month – a solar-power installation at two high schools in Morgan Hill. 

The state architect's office removed Edgin from three of the nine jobs. Edgin sued, saying the division’s judgment of “too much work” was arbitrary and unscientific. The complaint, which is pending, alleged he had lost $180,000 in potential income as a result. 

Edgin remains an active, certified inspector.

In an interview, Edgin said he could have adequately inspected all nine of the school projects because the timing of construction on each varied. And he contended that the state architect’s office had given him permission in 2009 to inspect multiple jobs.

“They’ve never been in the (construction) field,” said Edgin, referring to the state’s field engineers. “They’re structural engineers. I know how long it takes.”

State overlooks significant problems

The state architect’s office has repeatedly allowed inspectors to work on school construction projects despite known problems with their work.

Supervising structural engineer Nathan Larson acknowledged as much in an internal e-mail regarding inspector discipline in April 2010. “Denial or withdrawal of approval based on poor past performance is almost non-existent,” Larson wrote.

Robert Sigman worked as the inspector on the relocation of five portable buildings at Discovery Charter School in San Jose, without notifying the state architect’s office when construction started. He failed to get approval from the state to act as the inspector before construction began. Most importantly, he did not submit a verified report attesting to the project’s safety before students moved in.

When he visited the site in January 2009, field engineer Michael Fretz questioned whether Sigman had even inspected it, according to memos and field notes obtained by California Watch.

That day, Sigman handed Fretz a final report saying the project followed approved plans. But Fretz found a number of deviations: Two new gates were not accessible for the disabled as required. A gate that was supposed to be installed for fire department access was missing. Finally, the buildings weren’t installed in the right location, according to the site plan – and Sigman wasn’t aware of the discrepancy, Fretz wrote.

In all, Fretz found 12 problems that needed correcting. An inspector hired for the project after Sigman left the job found that an electrical grounding system for a portable building at the campus had not been tested.

The problems remain unresolved, according to the state’s records.

Sigman told Fretz that he had inspected the project as a favor to his close friend, the project manager, John Croswhite.

In an interview, Sigman acknowledged that he had broken the rules. But he insisted that he had a strong track record. He said his transgression was an attempt to help Croswhite meet the Moreland School District’s scheduling demands.

“I was wrong,” Sigman said. But, he added, “If you go through the rest of my file, you will see that I have no other letters of reprimand from any of the field engineers that I’ve worked with, and I’ve inspected almost $500 million worth of work for different school districts."

The state architect's office approved Sigman to inspect two projects totaling $19 million at Ross Elementary School in Marin County last year, records show.

The state architect’s office has overlooked other issues with inspectors.

Courtesy Doug Devine/Los Angeles Department of Building and SafetyThe Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety found that a contractor had installed these makeshift and faulty seismic anchors in numerous unreinforced masonry buildings.

In 1990, Doug Devine, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety inspector, was investigating a problem. One contractor had been installing faulty seismic anchors in numerous unreinforced masonry buildings. The thin, foot-long anchors – critical to holding a building together during an earthquake – shattered when dropped to the ground.

One inspector, Richard Vale, had approved them all.

Vale and the contractor, Jose Aguilar, denied wrongdoing when they were accused of installing the makeshift and faulty seismic anchors during a series of earthquake retrofitting jobs.

But after Vale and Aguilar finished, city officials required property owners to repair the buildings again. The City of Los Angeles revoked Vale’s inspector license in 1991. 

“I didn’t want him out there ever inspecting anything in our city again, especially with school buildings with children in it,” Devine said. “That’s unconscionable.”

But that’s exactly what the state architect’s office approved Vale to do in 2005. 

Vale got a project inspector job at Palo Verde College in Blythe. The district hired Vale through Riverside-based Inland Inspections & Consulting Inc., which was paid $315,000 for Vale’s services.

In 2006, Paige Vaughan, a construction manager for another private firm, alerted the state architect’s office to Vale’s background in an e-mail obtained by California Watch.

“I really believe that individuals like this should never perform inspections again,” Vaughan wrote in the e-mail. “This act of misconduct could have caused injury or death.”

David Ritsher/California WatchSeismic anchor bolts such as this one are designed to hold floors and walls to the foundation during an earthquake.

Vaughan’s note to Jeff Enzler, a district structural engineer for the state architect’s office, was forwarded to top officials, including then-State Architect Thorman. The e-mail included a stinging rebuke: “An inspector with poor integrity is pretty worthless.”

Yet the message was ignored.

After Vaughan’s warning, the state architect’s office allowed Vale to remain as the project inspector at Palo Verde. Later, he was approved by the state as the welding inspector on the Needles High School project and the Rancho Santa Fe job.

Meanwhile, on the Palo Verde job, Vale’s performance came into question. He often failed to show up, said John Madole, director of facilities and operations for the community college.

“He just wasn't here,” Madole said. “He was on-site, but he was over in our welding shop; he was over in our auto shop fixing his car or his boat. Just really strange.”

Vale’s work also drew criticism from regulators. In 2007, field engineer Sergio Ferrer noted that Vale did not observe masonry work when required. In 2008, Vale was written up for failing to file required reports and for improperly testing masonry samples.

Madole was surprised to learn of Vale’s conviction. The district did not order a background check on Vale because officials assumed state regulators took care of it, he said. The state architect’s office “should have been the one that nailed him right off the get-go,” he said.

But Madole defended the safety of the buildings that Vale inspected. 

“I’ve been in the construction trade ever since 1966,” Madole said. “And you pretty much know when somebody’s trying to cross you up or not do something proper.”

Acting State Architect Smith acknowledged that entrusting an inspector who had helped install faulty seismic anchors does pose problems. 

“If that were indeed the case, I would have a problem with that myself,” he said.

Still, Smith said he did not know whether the state should conduct background checks on inspectors in the future. Such reviews “could be explored through the regulatory process, perhaps,” he said. 

Vale and Aguilar sought for years, unsuccessfully, to withdraw their no-contest pleas in the Los Angeles case. Marilynn Van Dam, a lawyer who represented Aguilar, wrote in an e-mail to California Watch that the prosecution’s evidence was weak and that the unapproved anchors had held up under stress tests she had commissioned.

During his brief telephone conversation with a reporter, Vale, 50, said the conviction occurred many years ago.

“You’re talking about trying to smear me and also one of the finest agencies in the state of California,” he said, “over something that was a long time ago and was put to rest by a lot of people.”

Reporters Kendall Taggart, Anna Werner and KQED's Krissy Clark contributed to this story. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Joanna Lin.

Filed under: K–12, On Shaky Ground

Comments

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martin veillon's picture
many of the comments noted in the article i read hold water, but what must be 1st noted is that dsa is under-staffed due to state budgets, blame the politicans for mis-management of my tax dollars. they are the root of the problems this great state has. without that being addressed and corrected 1st, you can expect nothing to get better the way it's going. ever since they assinated john f. kennedy, it's all gone to hell, hasn't it?
anonme's picture
I suggest that the Districts that hire these inspectors also put some sort of stipulation in their contract with Inspectors that they must have all paperwork in to DSA, the AOR and the District for the project prior to receiving retention. This will insure that projects do not get closed without certification because of the IOR not turning in his required paperwork.

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