inspector accused of moonlighting as unlicensed contractor

L.A. housing inspector accused of moonlighting as unlicensed contractor
Ronald Diaz, who earns $104,000 annually, faces grand theft and other charges in a case involving a North Hills woman who says he sexually harassed her. His attorney says he is innocent.
By David Zahniser and Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times,4458915,full.story
January 8, 2012
As a senior city housing inspector, Ronald Diaz's job is to be an impartial, frontline guardian of safe and habitable apartment living in Los Angeles.

But according to testimony and statements given to city and state officials, Diaz also allegedly improperly moonlighted as an unlicensed contractor with some unorthodox billing practices: A North Hills woman accused him of offering a $1,000 discount if she would send him a text message with a picture of her bare breasts — and upping the offer to $2,000 when she ignored him.

Diaz, 49, was charged Dec. 30 with five misdemeanor counts, including grand theft, attempted grand theft and contracting without a license. Prosecutors contend that he collected $5,500 from Ana Lopez, who was in trouble with building inspectors over unpermitted work on a property she operated as a day-care center.

Months earlier, the city's Civil Service Commission suspended Diaz for 20 days, saying he violated Housing Department policy and used his position for personal gain. The panel, however, agreed with Diaz that his interactions with Lopez were not sexual harassment.

The case is the latest to roil city departments charged with safeguarding the city's commercial and residential structures.

An ongoing bribery investigation at the Department of Building and Safety has resulted in the termination of four employees, two of whom pleaded guilty to federal charges. And a housing department clerk in Koreatown was convicted of bribery in 2010.

That employee, Eun Chavis, lost her job. But Diaz, who earns $104,000 annually, kept his even after his superiors concluded that he misused his position and sexually harassed a member of the public.

Among other things, housing officials asserted that Diaz, who lives in San Fernando, intimidated Lopez, repeatedly demanded sexual favors from her and, at one point, sent her a photo of a small boy with a large exposed penis. Lopez could not be reached for comment.

Michael Posner, Diaz's attorney, said his client is innocent of the charges.

Diaz did not keep the money given to him by Lopez, forwarding it instead to an architect and a contractor — the latter also unlicensed — who worked on the day-care center, Posner said.

"He was just doing them a favor," Posner said. "In retrospect ... obviously it would have been a lot better for him if he did not accept the checks."

In paperwork filed with the city, Posner portrayed Lopez as a frequent liar who "initiated the banter of sexuality" with Diaz, going so far as to send him a photo of a woman with bare breasts. Diaz claimed that Lopez was angry because he was not interested in her.

"I'm not trying to be disrespectful but she's not even my type. I like my women voluptuous, like you," Diaz told a State Contractors' Licensing Board investigator, according to a report prepared by the agency.

City Controller Wendy Greuel, who is running for mayor, said more forceful action should have been taken against Diaz.

"Common sense would say that the consequences should have been much more severe," she said.

Greuel said there is a growing perception that residents are being "preyed upon" by city inspectors.

Rushmore Cervantes, the housing department's No. 2 executive, defended his agency's decision to recommend a 20-day suspension for Diaz.

When presenting disciplinary recommendations to the commission, "we put forth cases we think are winnable," Cervantes said. A hearing officer tried to reduce Diaz's suspension to 15 days, he said, and the department had to fight to keep it at 20.

In comments to personnel investigators, Lopez said she turned to Diaz for help in 2009 after inspectors found that she had illegally converted a garage into a play room for her child-care business.

She asked Diaz, a fellow parent at her child's school, for help in bringing the structure into compliance with city laws, according to a report submitted to the Civil Service Commission.

Diaz arranged for Anthony Nuñez, a repairman who lacked a contracting license, to handle the work.

Nuñez later told state investigators that Diaz repeatedly lied to Lopez — and arranged for $1,500 in concrete work that she did not need.

"I told him ... the concrete slab was already there. He said, 'No just do it the way I asked you to. That way I can get more money from her,' " said Nuñez, according to a report prepared by state officials.

Lopez told investigators that Diaz repeatedly asked her out, suggested at one point that they have a massage, and sent her text messages asking for pictures of her breasts. She said she feared that if she stopped working with him, he would make her permitting problems with the city worse.

Eventually, disturbed by the rising cost of the repairs, she filed a complaint, according to city documents.

Four previous disciplinary matters involving Diaz at the Housing Department are noted in city records. Among them was a 10-day suspension in 2007 after agency officials accused him of threatening a subordinate who reported him for playing computer solitaire during work hours.

Records show that some co-workers have defended Diaz, describing him as efficient and conscientious. One colleague said Diaz has "a big heart" but "just gets mixed up."

But another co-worker complained that Diaz bragged of having sex while on the job — and told other inspectors they should too.
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