BY COREY G. JOHNSON AND ERICA PEREZ, California Watch | Saturday, Apr 09 2011 05:00 PM
Last Updated Saturday, Apr 09 2011 05:00 PM
As far as officials at Palo Verde College knew, Richard Vale had a reliable work history when they hired him to inspect construction of a new gym, locker room and swimming pool at the Riverside County community college campus.
The Division of the State Architect had approved Vale to inspect public school and community college projects in 2005, 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 the city of Los Angeles.
Prosecutors had in the early 1990s accused Vale of accepting $100,000 from a building contractor for 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 approved Vale for the $10 million Palo Verde job and, in 2007, as the welding inspector on a $2 million renovation project at Needles High School in San Bernardino County.
"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 isn't 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 many of them 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 emails, project records and other documents show inspectors working on multiple school construction jobs even after being accused of corruption and filing false reports with regulators. Some failed to identify safety defects. Others were absent from job sites during key moments of construction.
Unlike standard construction projects, which use city or county inspectors, public school and community college building sites are monitored by a special network of 1,700 inspectors who are trained in the Field Act, considered one of the premier building standards in the country.
School districts pay $70 to $100 an hour for the services of an inspector, and pay the state thousands of dollars for field engineers to make sure the inspectors are competently following the Field Act.
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."
In the past three years, the state architect's office has revoked only a single inspector's license -- a whistleblower from Fresno who had admitted in a legislative hearing that he had overlooked potentially dangerous problems.
Some experts in seismic construction say this 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."
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 the state architect's office and with builders.
Records show that 293 inspectors were written up for poor performance -- either receiving "unsatisfactory" marks or having been told their work needed improvement. Yet most were approved for additional jobs.
Others have escaped any kind of formal scrutiny. On about 40 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 not filed a single rating report since 2001 on inspectors working in that region, records show.
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."
Without enough field engineers to monitor school inspectors, an important link in the system has been broken, records and interviews show.
According to a 2006 report written by the state architect's office, field engineers were not visiting school sites and therefore had "no knowledge of the projects." Some projects were being monitored by unqualified assistant inspectors and completed without adequate testing of concrete, masonry and soil, and with unspecified "dangerous construction flaws."
In one case, a dozen new classroom buildings constructed in 2004 at Anna Kyle Elementary School in Fairfield never received a visit from a field engineer. There is no evidence of shoddy construction or incompetent work by the inspector, but taxpayer money was wasted: 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 seismic upgrade to the auditorium building at Newhall Elementary School in the Santa Clarita Valley. According to Patel's notes, a contractor said Marquez was frequently absent and stayed for only an hour or so when he did appear.
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 20 more construction projects in Southern California over the next eight years.
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."
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.
But in January 2009, a state field engineer gave inspector Wayne Edgin an unsatisfactory grade on an inspection at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, saying Edgin's work schedule was "excessive."
That summer, the state architect's office denied approval to Edgin to inspect six more projects, because it was more work than Edgin could adequately handle. Edgin worked the jobs anyway. Rather than discipline him, a regional manager with the state architect's office had him sign 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.
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 alleges 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 gave him permission to inspect multiple jobs in 2009.
"They've never been in the (construction) field," Edgin said about the state's field engineers. "They're structural engineers. I know how long it takes."
This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick. Reporters Kendall Taggart, Anna Werner and Krissy Clark and contributed to this story.
California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team, is a project of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Contact the reporter at email@example.com.