Former Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections Commissioner, Bennett Levin, told city leaders that someone needs to be bold enough to put a stop to a corrupt system. Levin spoke for more than an hour at an investigative hearing into the deadly Center City building collapse at 22nd and Market in June.
"We got six dead people, a lady with no legs and an inspector who put a gun to his head," Levin said. He said the entire L&I organization needs to be reviewed and restructured to wipe out incompetency, substandard work and corruption.
"The whole system is falling apart," Levin said. "You got these real problems, but someone in the city has to finally stand up and say, ‘Enough!’”
Levin said the department, which issues permits for construction and demolition, inspects properties and enforces the city's building codes, had also moved away from a focus on public safety and was motivated more now by economic development.
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"L&I can no longer be a political back-order where money walks and people die," he said. “There are a lot of things the council ought to know. I can tell you about the FBI, I can tell you about false reports going to the FBI, I can tell you a lot of stories, but until you free the department from the political chicanery, there’s gonna be a problem,”said Levin.
The special investigative city council committee is hearing testimony to determine what led to the deadly Market Street collapse on June 5 so they can makes changes to prevent it from happening again. A four-story building that was under demolition came down that morning on top of the Salvation Army Thrift store next door. Six people died, thirteen more were injured and in the days following the collapse, a lead inspector for L&I killed himself after expressing feelings of great remorse over the collapse.
Construction accident attorney Robert Mongeluzzi was also invited to testify today. He was prepared to call for the city to put a stop to the process of allowing "expediters" to get permits for any other contractor.
"It's just unfair that somebody can go get a license for somebody else," he said.
"It's been used in the past so the contractor itself, does not have to provide their qualifications, so that's a great smokescreen to allow anybody who's unqualified to be able to get a license," Mongeluzzi said.
Mongeluzzi represents a majority of the victims in the Market Street collapse who have decided to sue. He says by allowing expediters to short-cut the permitting process for building owners and developers, the city has created two separate systems -- one that involves patronage and influence and the other for everybody else.
In the case of the Market Street collapse, the building's owner, STB Investments, paid expediter Plato Marinakos, a local architect, to obtain the permit for demolition. Marinakos had nothing to do with the actual demolition, however. Another contractor, Griffin Campbell, was hired to do the job. Campbell then hired an excavator operator, Sean Benschop, to work on the project.
According to police, Benschop was under the influence of drugs when he was operating the excavator. He is the only person charged in connection with the fatal collapse, although a grand jury is now investigating the case. But Mongeluzzi doesn't believe the cause of the collapse links directly back to Benschop.
"This was a failure in planning, not a failure in execution," he said earlier this month when reviewing new video that showed the actual moment of the collapse. He believes the demolition crew did not properly secure the site, according to federal guidelines.
Levin was one of two former L&I commissioners to testify today. He served under Mayor Ed Rendell in the early 1990s. Fran Burns ran the department from 2008 to 2012. Both agreed that the department should have the public's safety as its main priority. Right now, L&I reports to the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development.
"I do think it reinforces the mission of L&I to have it in the structure of Public Safety," Burns said.
The hearing became a bit contentious when Councilwoman Cindy Bass came in to question Burns, asking her about the department's "move toward making revenue." Burns said, "I don't know where that comes from, that's absolutely not true." She explained that money made by the department doesn't come back, dollar for dollar to Licenses and Inspections.
Bass challenged a list of goals and accomplishments Burns said were met under her leadership at L&I and asked Burns to talk about whether she saw the deadly collapse at 22nd and Market Street coming.
"What were your thoughts when it happened?" Bass asked."Were you shocked and surprised with all the controls you left in place? Were you not surprised? maybe you thought things were a little bit lax and maybe this could happen?"
"I don't have a response to that," Burns said. "I don't think that question matters in the context [of these hearings]," Burns answered.
Bass said Burns had a duty to answer the question because in order to create a better system, the city had to look to the past to make the future better.
"I don't feel comfortable speculating," Burns said.