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Is California failing to enforce seismic safety law at schools?

April 8, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
There are thousands of school construction projects throughout California, and there's a network of more than 1,500 specially-trained inspectors to oversee them.

Public school construction in California is supposed to be tightly monitored to make sure it meets earthquake safety standards.

"You're making sure that the contractor and project management is performing the job ? per the approved plans of Division of State Architecture," said inspector David Bridi.

Bridi also says inspectors help keep contractors honest because "contractors will try to use a substitute product or a lesser product. I'm saying 90 percent of the time, the contractor is trying to cut corners."

Inspectors are supposed to be the watchdogs of school construction projects. They're tested and licensed by the state. But is the state always doing its job?

One case to consider is that of Richard Vale.

"We couldn't trust anything that he did or said," said Los Angeles City inspector Doug Devine.

Devine reviewed Vale's work on a Los Angeles program that involved seismic anchors, which are metal rods that tie roofs and floors to walls and keep the building together in an earthquake.

But in more than two dozen projects, Devine found these makeshift seismic anchors. When the city tested those anchors, they failed.

So who had approved them?

"We found out that it was only the deputy inspector, Richard Vale, who was allowing these anchors to be put in," Devine said.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office charged Vale of filing false reports, and in 1997, Vale plead no contest to conspiracy to obstruct justice, a felony.

"I didn't want him out there ever inspecting anything in our city again," Devine said.

But that wasn't the end of Vale. Not only did he obtain a DSA inspector's license, but as recently as last year he worked on major school construction projects.

How could the DSA certify someone with Vale history?

"I'm simply not sure of the details of this particular case," said Howard Smith, acting state architect.

As it turns out, the DSA doesn't do criminal background checks.

"Our program, our process, our supporting regulations don't address that," Smith said. "I'm not saying it's not a good idea to look at that."

Reached by phone, Vale said "You're talking about trying to smear me and also one of the finest agencies in the state of California ... over something that was a long time ago, and was put to rest by a lot of people."

Vale isn't the only troubling case. In a review of the last three decades, California Watch found nearly 300 school inspectors with documented problems, ranging from absenteeism to failing to identify construction defects.

"Do I think it's an alarmist problem right now at this moment? No. I don't," Smith said.

But former state legislator Sally Lieber sees it differently.

"I don't agree that it's just a room for improvement situation," she said."All of the incentives are there to cut corners."

Lieber said that because inspectors are actually hired by the districts, they may face pressure to look the other way on projects to stay employed.

"The status quo gives the contractors and the local districts all the flexibility of the fox guarding the henhouse," Lieber said.

To learn more about seismic dangers and earthquake zones that are near Southland schools, click here.