BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
PHILADELPHIA — A federal grand jury has indicted 13 current or former Philadelphia plumbing inspectors for taking bribes from plumbing contractors for as long as 20 years. The inspectors, who worked for the city’s Construction Services Department in the Department of Licenses and Inspections, were accused of taking bribes from $5 to $20 at a time, with the money concealed inside triplicate permit forms or palmed in handshakes.
The inspectors were arraigned in mid-March in U.S. District Court and entered not guilty pleas. A trial date has not been set.
U.S. Attorney Patrick L. Meehan announced the indictment, which calls the bribes a “systematic scheme of extortion of over $169,000.”
“This indictment represents an ongoing commitment by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI to prosecute systemic corruption by local government officials,” Meehan said. He noted that the indictment charged local officials with misusing their office for personal gain.
The grand jury charged each defendant with one count of racketeering and 10 counts each of extortion under color of official right in violation of the Hobbs Act.
According to the indictment, from at least as early as 1981 through the present day, the defendants engaged in a pattern of racketeering whereby they used their employment as plumbing inspectors to receive cash payoffs from plumbers whose jobs the defendants were responsible for inspecting. In exchange for the cash payoffs, the indictment charges that the defendants at times: performed incomplete inspections for plumbers who paid them; failed to perform the required plumbing inspections; arranged for favorable and convenient inspection times; and permitted plumbers who paid them to work without the required permits and without interference.
The 13 indicted inspectors, all residents of Philadelphia, are: current inspectors James D’Agostino; Mark Iuliucci; William Jackson; William Kirschner; Joseph Leone; Phillip O’Donnell; Joseph O’Malley; Stephen Rachuba; John Thomas Roberts; Fred Tursi; and Thomas Urban; and former inspectors Gerald S. Mulderig and James Smith.
The 11 current inspectors were being fired immediately, said L and I Commissioner Edward McLaughlin.
Only one plumbing inspector, who wishes to remain anonymous, would not take bribes, McLaughlin said. He is now a plumbing plans administrator in Licensing and Inspections.
The indictment listed the contractors victimized in the scheme. Most are small contractors with the exception of a few such as Voegele Mechanical, Herman Goldner Co. and Fluidics. Voegele and Goldner did not return calls for comment.
“When Fluidics was contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s office, we investigated fully and gave all records to the investigating authority and determined that the practice was in violation of our own standards and was a pervasive problem with our procedures and our controls,” said spokesman Paul Rosengren. “Senior execs have made it clear that this behavior is not tolerated, not condoned and must stop and that all employees are expected to cooperate fully with the investigation. All employees have been notified and reacquainted with our policies on corporate integrity.”
McLaughlin said he had heard rumors about bribes, but contractors did not complain. He said that the inspectors, who are licensed master plumbers, inspected other master plumbers, and that may have created an old boys network. In fact, one contractor was quoted in a Philadelphia newspaper likening the bribes to tipping a barber.
The FBI put hidden cameras in city cars under a ruse that they were part of a citywide test of alcohol-fueled vehicles, McLaughlin said. The inspectors normally used their personal cars and were reimbursed. All the defendants were caught taking bribes on camera, he said.
McLaughlin has changed the department to cross-train 27 building inspectors to do plumbing inspections. In addition, it will allow licensed master plumbers to self-certify. If a job cannot be inspected in a timely manner, the contractor can call an inspection supervisor who can give permission to self-certify. The contractor has to photograph the job, attest that he has used approved materials and followed the code, and he can close up the hole without an inspector seeing the job.