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Blowing whistle satisfies ‘crybaby’

Fred Frazzetta, the non-union electrician who blew the whistle on illegal remodeling at the Rio hotel, said he feels vindicated by a consultant’s report that exposed dysfunction — and suggests corruption – in the county’s building and fire departments.

Frazzetta is a crybaby, inspectors repeatedly complained to the report’s author, Michael Kessler, while he was gathering data. Parties interviewed also said Frazzetta was merely a disgruntled ex-employee of Harrah’s.

After reading the Kessler report, Frazzetta laughed and said, "I’ve been called a lot worse than crybaby."

The "audit has revealed that in this instance the public trust was clearly violated," Kessler wrote about the Rio remodeling in the introduction to his lengthy report. It pinpoints numerous weaknesses in how the county handles complaints about building safety.

The audit found record-keeping systems that can be manipulated by inspectors, a shortage of documentation for their decisions and lopsided billing for investigation fees and penalties related to code violations, which hit homeowners in the pocket but let commercial interests off the hook.

To solve the problems detailed, the report makes recommendations, some of which mirror changes that county staffers developed and plan to unveil to commissioners at their Tuesday meeting.

Kessler’s report took as its starting point the complaint that Frazzetta filed in late summer 2006, alleging the Rio did significant remodeling of guest rooms in 2005 but never let inspectors verify that the work met safety codes.

It took the county six months to check Frazzetta’s complaint before closing it as unfounded. When the Review-Journal started probing the matter last summer, the county reopened its file and found work done without permits or inspections, some of it defective.

"All indications suggest that no inspections were ever conducted" at the Rio to research Frazzetta’s complaint, the report says. "Kessler is of the opinion that the building inspectors handling these complaints were derelict in their duties," because they failed to inspect, and then falsified records.

Frazzetta had worked on the Rio remodel, and later took a full-time maintenance position at Harrah’s Las Vegas, a sister hotel. He said he started filing complaints in 2006 with the county and Nevada OSHA after seeing what he believed was unsafe asbestos handling and building code violations.

In early summer 2007, Harrah’s fired Frazzetta for leaving his shift with company property, six light bulbs, worth less than $20. Frazzetta said he intended to borrow the bulbs to demonstrate lighting differences to a friend.

"If I had not been persistent, this never would have seen the light of day," the 51-year-old Frazzetta said. "I stood up when everyone else sat down and turned their heads. I will never be mistaken for a good little sheep."

Kessler interviewed numerous players and analyzed thousands of documents in the county’s complaint processing system. He found a pattern of long lags before inspectors responded to complaints, regardless of a complaint’s seriousness. For example, it took the building division six months to log a woman’s e-mail that an apartment building, at 5100 E. Tropicana Ave., was dangerous.

The complaint said "the complainant’s daughter (who had friends living at the address) was raped in the building in an empty, vacant apartment. The complainant further stated that the empty apartments are open and are not boarded to keep people out."

The woman e-mailed in February 2006. The building division closed the case in August, the same month it formally recorded the complaint and claimed to have followed up on it.

"There is a complete lack of accountability and checks and balances" in the building division’s complaint system, Kessler’s report says.

In a sample of 97 cases, he found 24 percent took more than five days to investigate, and 5 percent took more than 30 days. One complaint took 397 days.

"Good customer relations" was the reason one inspector supplied when Kessler asked why he appeared to be giving a contractor special treatment.

The inspector, later identified as James Braddock, frequently handled inspections outside his geographic territory and his technical expertise. He sometimes granted approval for work that an assigned inspector had rejected.

The consultant identified "at least 30 (to) 40 occurrences" of irregularities involving the man, and recommended the county manager refer the matter to law enforcement.

Fire department personnel alleged to Kessler that their managers sometimes bend under "undue influence" from county commissioners, telling inspectors not to write up violations at certain properties.

"This is a very serious and troubling allegation," County Manager Virginia Valentine said Wednesday.

She e-mailed fire department staff, asking any who had proof of such behavior to step forward. "I will grant any employee with supporting documentation whistle-blower protections," the e-mail said.

When the Review-Journal presented her with names of commissioners connected to rumors — but no proof — of twisting arms on behalf of large resorts, Valentine confirmed that Kessler had heard the same names: Rory Reid and Tom Collins.

"Bull" was half the word that Collins used when phoned Wednesday about the rumor; then he quickly ended the call.

Reid called the allegation "baseless" but encouraged the source to provide details. "I never asked a county employee to look the other way on anything, and I wouldn’t."

The building division’s traditional emphasis has been on new construction. But, "as the community’s inventory of buildings ages, we expect the number of complaints (about safety in existing buildings) to increase," Assistant County Manager Phil Rosenquist said.

To give more oversight to high-rise structures, county staff will recommend commissioners approve several new inspection programs.

One possibility is an "amnesty" program for voluntary disclosure of past work that went without permits or inspections, but not all fees will be waived.

The county is looking at revising county and state laws to allow for tougher consequences for doing commercial construction or renovation without permits, Valentine said.

Review-Journal writer Frank Geary contributed to this report. Contact reporter Joan Whitely at jwhitely@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0268.

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