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Bribes, strippers, corruption and red tape: Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspection

Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has been in the news a lot lately. We now know contractors have knocked down buildings without required permits, and that beer gardens can be shut down until they’re not.

So what’s the deal with L&I?

Since the Department of Licenses and Inspections was established in 1951, more than 50 employees have been fired or arrested for some sort of corruption or major incompetence. This rap sheet includes extortion, bribery and being just plain bad at their jobs to the point where it’s criminal or negligent — ranging from sex with prostitutes on the job to $2 (!) bribes.

This group of appointed leaders is charged with keeping buildings standing and safe. But critics have had a field day with its bloated structure and unclear pile of responsibilities, and how easy that makes corruption. (Of note: Presumptive mayor Jim Kenney’s plan to help the agency by giving some of its responsibilities to the Philadelphia Parking Authority.) Here’s a brief look at L&I, what it does, and a snapshot of the corruption and incompetence that’s plagued the agency virtually since it was formed:

Bribes since the beginning

This city agency that’s been plagued with corruption since 1951 was formed in order to put all regulatory enforcement and licensing together — all to avoid corruption. According to a report compiled by a group charged with evaluating L&I last year, the concept was “progressive and ideal” at the time.

So the city charter dumped a bunch of responsibilities on L&I that were taken from other city agencies at the time. They became a super agency tasked with handling all building safety and sanitation, signs and zoning, issuance of licenses, carrying out of inspections and enforcing city codes.

Archives of the Philadelphia Inquirer show that the first L&I commissioner said in 1952 that “any inspector who takes a bribe or accepts money not only will be dismissed but also will be prosecuted.” The same year, 10 (ten!) inspectors from his office were caught accepting bribes as small as $2 from contractors so they would give the proverbial shrug to code violations.

In the 1950s alone, those 10 inspectors were fired for accepting bribes, two more were arrested for accepting money from “permit expediters” — people who apply for permits but have nothing to do with the actual work being done — and four others were fired for accepting payoffs from other businesses and individuals to overlook code violations.

From 1960 to the early 90s, dozens of L&I inspectors and employees were either accused of corruption or ineptitude, and many were arrested and charged for alleged crimes. Here’s a sampling of what went down:

  • 1969: Deputy commissioner James Donovan is charged with 22 counts of bribery and extortion after investigators discovered he was taking money from businesses in order to resolve their code violations in a way that would be favorable to them. According to The Inquirer, “one contractor estimates that his combined payoffs to inspectors at L&I and the Philadelphia Housing Authority totaled $45,000 the previous year.”
  • 1986: Eight employees are arrested for taking bribes to ignore code violations and expedite permits for buddies.
  • 1987: An inspector is arrested after he promised an occupancy certificate to a North Philly hoagie shop owner who coughed up 500 bucks.
  • 1991: Four employees are charged with taking money form building contractors, and one of the men was taped by the FBI literally counting cash in his city office.

Public corruption in Philadelphia can seem pervasive in the Department of Licenses and Inspections which bears much of the scrutiny, but it’s common throughout the city government. Last year, Philly was named the eighth most corrupt city in America based on federal public corruption convictions from 1976 to 2010.

The Office of the Inspector General reported last year that its investigations have yielded the disciplining or firing of 250 employees who have violated the public trust. And that’s just in the last six years. And it’s happened recently.

Deputy Commissioner Dominic Verdi was charged last year with extortion after investigators alleged that he took more than $1 million from bar and club owners, but Verdi denied the charges. His case is ongoing.

But one L&I official’s taste for money over the years — and mostly sex — deserves to be recounted.

Upping the Antico

The late 90s were a bit of a let-down for Frank Antico. Because during the previous decades he spent leading L&I were a marathon of using his city position to solicit sex, and lots of it.

The guy basically was L&I for more than 30 years. Once described as “always well-tanned and with immaculately combed white hair,” Antico never served as the commissioner, but he was a deputy who knew what he was doing for so long that it made him the de facto head of the Department. 

He knew building codes like the back of his hand. But according to archives from trial testimony, he also knew the South Philly strip joints quite well. On trial in 1999 for 18 counts of bribery and racketeering, Antico continued to assert that he was a big fan of the strippers — but wasn’t corrupt.

City Paper described it best:

Antico also spent the last 13 years as if he were constantly on-camera in a non-stop stag film, partying at whorehouses and strip bars, sexing it up with strippers in the Municipal Services Building and exchanging L&I privileges with a successful downtown madam for sex and cash. His taste for T&A was so well known that when two deputy mayors were looking for strippers for a bachelor party, they immediately called Antico, who personally escorted friends Tia, Monique and Amber to the bash. When an aggrieved bar owner wanted to reach the deputy L&I commissioner one Friday night, he didn’t look up Antico’s listed home number; he didn’t try the L&I hotline; instead, he tried leaving a message at a South Philly strip joint, Teazer’s. Antico called him back in 10 minutes.

No one seemed all that surprised when Antico was put on trial for his misdeeds. Bennett Levin, who later became L&I head under Mayor Ed Rendell, said at the time that charges were “bullshit.”

That wasn’t because they weren’t true; it was because Antico’s behavior was normal.

“Frank didn’t do anything that a dozen other guys hadn’t done for years,” he told City Paper. “The problem was, he was too mouthy and embarrassed the Mayor. If he’d kept his mouth shut, he’d have retired in peace and Rendell would have come to the party.”

Antico was found guilty and sentenced to spend 63 months in prison in 2002.

Problems continue

The most cited instance now of L&I ineptitude also happened to be deadly. On a June morning at 22nd and Market streets, a wall collapsed during demolition of a building and fell on top of a Salvation Army store, killing six people. After the collapse, people started asking why L&I hadn’t kept tabs on the demolition. A week later, the inspector who was supposed to do that committed suicide.

Since then, the Mayor’s Special Independent Commission to Evaluate the Department of Licenses and Inspections convened, and found — among other problems — that L&I’s 300 inspectors were asked to complete an average of 22 inspections a day, or four inspections an hour over an 8-hour workday.

Under Commissioner Carlton Williams, who was appointed to the position in 2012, the department made some changes in how it goes about building inspections and what it requires from contractors before demolitions of buildings can even begin. They put in an all new set of rules.

That doesn’t mean they follow them.

L&I shut down the Point Breeze beer garden, but a judge reversed the decision, saying they were wrong to do so. The agency has allowed demolitions to move forward without the proper safety plans, violating a rule that was specifically put in place after Market Street. Earlier this year, L&I allowed nine uncertified rookies to complete 600 inspections in one week. 

In fact, a report by the City Controller found that more than 80 percent of demolitions that took place after the collapse weren’t complying with new rules that were put in place because of the incident or had new requirements simply waived. What’s more, L&I has no idea how many building collapses have even occurred, let alone knowing which ones are most susceptible to cause problems next.

Can it be fixed?

After decades of problems, a group that studied the agency suggests it should be downsized as to ensure that a single city department doesn’t wield too much power and hold responsibility it can’t live up to.

It’s also well-documented that L&I has been underfunded for at least the last decade, and Mayor Michael Nutter promised to address that following Market Street. The next year’s budget begins to address suggestions for ensuring structural safety across the city that call for additional 100 employees and $14 million over several years. The Department is expected to be better funded over the next five years so that it can add more employees and complete more inspections in a timely manner.

Glenn Corbett, who chaired the Mayor’s Special Independent Commission, told Billy Penn earlier this year that nothing will get better if politicians keep piling responsibilities onto L&I — even if it’s something as small as regulating donation boxes.

“Bringing in all sorts of other things and putting all that into one mega organization is just adding insult to injury,” he said. “It’s completely in the opposite direction from what we are proposing. Making it bigger is not making it better.”

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