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Inspections from Hell

Building inspectors in Alameda have been accused of harassing homeowners, soliciting bribes, and imposing heavy fines for questionable violations.



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In their complaint, Skrinde and Mohlen accused officials of inflating the number of violations by deleting records of prior inspections they had already passed. In one instance, they said, police interrogated an electrician who insisted he had watched veteran inspector Hans Warner Williams sign off on his electrical work. Williams, who denied performing the inspection, would later serve six months in county jail for shaking down a Chinese restaurant that needed him to okay some remodel work.

In an interview, electrician Eric Nielsen said police tried to intimidate him when he told them he had witnessed Williams performing the missing inspection. "It got real ugly," Nielsen said. "They were asking me if I liked working in this town and asking me if I liked George Carder, the building inspector."

Fox, the city's attorney, acknowledges that the city's record-keeping system was "out-dated," making it difficult to track permit and inspection records. "Nothing was ever conclusively determined" regarding records being "destroyed or deleted or misplaced," he said. As for Nielsen, Fox said the electrician had been vague in his conversations with police and unable to remember exact details about whether his electrical work had actually been inspected.

The city also pursued a criminal case against Mohlen, 63, records show, charging her with 19 misdemeanors in connection with the code violations. (The charges were later dropped.)

In their efforts to fend off inspectors, Skrinde and Mohlen enlisted the help of a politically influential friend in Alameda — winemaker Kent Rosenblum. Rosenblum wrote a letter to the city council on the couple's behalf in June 2003, asking officials to look into the planning department's actions.

Then, just weeks later, Carder visited Rosenblum's winery and cited him for numerous code violations, Rosenblum said in court documents. In a June 2004 letter to the city planning board, Rosenblum accused city inspectors of engaging in "a questionable witchhunt" against Mohlen and Skrinde. After his initial letter defending the couple, Rosenblum said, city officials had also retaliated against him.

"Building and Fire Officials descended upon our winery, and demanded upgrades and permits where there had never been a previous need," Rosenblum wrote. "They literally closed the event portion of the winery, except by special permission."

Carder, who still works for the building department, did not respond to an interview request. McFann, Carder's supervisor, referred questions to the city attorney's office, which in turn directed questions back to Fox, the city's private attorney.

Fox said the city attorney as well as the police department had investigated Skrinde's allegation of bribery and that the homeowner's accusation was "determined to have no foundation." "There was never any evidence to support the allegation that Mr. Carder had tried to solicit a bribe," he said. As for Rosenblum, the winery owner, "it was never determined in court that anything inappropriate had happened," Fox said.

After more than $200,000 in legal fees and many sleepless nights, Mohlen and Skrinde sold their home in 2005. City officials agreed to give the new owners amnesty from the five code violations still standing by that time, Skrinde said. The couple moved to Fort Lauderdale.

Ten years after the inspection that set off a legal nightmare for the couple, it's clear that Skrinde, 60, is still angry. "I was driven out of town after living there twenty years," he said, reached on his cell phone while vacationing with his wife in Seattle. "Nobody would stop these people. It was so out of control, so corrupt and so ugly."

Skrinde, a technology consultant, said he and Mohlen, a real estate agent, had purchased the waterfront property with plans to retire there. "It was my dream home," he said. "I've lost years of sleep over this."

In court documents, attorney Padway argued that in an effort to raise money for a then-oversized building department, city inspectors had harassed Mohlen and Skrinde with complicated, confusing codes that actually violated state law. The code enforcement program was "aggressive, illegal and arbitrarily executed," Padway wrote.

Court records show an Alameda Superior Court judge on a separate case from 2004 apparently agreed with the attorney's assessment. In that case, the city attorney's office dropped criminal charges against an Alameda landlord after a Superior Court judge issued a tentative ruling saying the building codes the city was seeking to enforce were illegal. In setting up a system of complex ordinances that conflicted with state-mandated codes, the city had made it difficult for the average citizen to avoid being charged with crimes, the judge said.

Fox said the city has since revised its codes to comply with state law and that none of the codes in question would have affected the Skrinde case.

An FBI Sting

Beyond aggravating local homeowners, the city's inspection team has also faced scrutiny from federal authorities. In 2007, an Alameda Superior Court judge sentenced veteran inspector Williams — the same inspector accused of lying about whether he had inspected Skrinde's property — to six months in jail and five years probation for shaking down a Chinese restaurant that needed him to sign off on a kitchen remodel.

"He was greedy," Chef's Wok owner Richard Chiu said of Williams. "Every time he came he wanted something else. I said enough is enough. If he just asked for free food, I wouldn't have turned him in, but I thought this guy could extort me for $100,000 or more."

So Chiu began recording Williams' phone calls and took the tapes to the FBI. Then, with FBI agents listening in from the restaurant parking lot, Chiu wore a wire and a hidden video camera for several weeks as Williams suggested Chiu buy a $400 Vita-Mix blender for Williams' wife and pay for construction supplies to renovate Williams' home.

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