Just a little ‘cosmetic work’

Let’s say you decide to sell your existing house in Clark County. During routine inspections preliminary to the sale, it comes to the attention of county officials that there are substantial discrepancies between the house as it now appears, and the house shown in the builder’s plans.

"OK," you admit, "we didn’t exactly go down and get the proper permits when we added that new half-bath, or when we put a roof over the back porch, with those new lights and ceiling fans."

You may still be able to sell your house, eventually. But it’s likely to cost you delays, headaches, several stern dressing-downs and some cash for inspections — assuming you don’t have to pull the work out, entirely. County inspectors are not known for taking a "never mind" attitude when substantial renovations — especially electrical work, with all its incumbent fire hazards — are undertaken without permits or inspections.

And that’s just for a single-family home. In a town where 87 people died at the old MGM Grand 27 years ago in a fire attributed to an electrical ground fault at a refrigerated pastry case — a town whose vital tourist trade could be threatened by any repeat of that disaster — imagine what an ants nest of scrambling inspectors, what a blizzard of fines and citations, would result if it turned out a major hotel property had gutted and renovated entire floors of a high-rise tower without so much as an electrical permit.

No ants nest, at all, actually.

Before he finally turned to the Review-Journal, local electrician Fred Frazetta, who worked on the massive renovations in the Rio’s Ipanema Tower in 2005, says he contacted numerous people in Harrah’s Entertainment (current owners of the Rio) and at the county about the lack of permits. He says he met widespread disinterest.

He finally filed a complaint with the county office of Development Services in August of 2006. The department waited six months before conducting an inspection in February — and then closed the case the same day. "The only work found that requires a permit was the replacement of one light fixture in each unit," Supervising Building Inspector Richard Maddox wrote in his four-paragraph inspection report, based on inspecting 37 rooms.

But Las Vegan Josh Costello, who did demolition and electrical work on the renovation project, says "There were no walls left" aside from those of the main guest corridor as the hotel converted the 600-square-foot suites on the 19th floor into 1,200-square-foot suites. "You could stand at one end of the tower and look at the other end of the tower."

Harrahs’ managers have maintained the work didn’t require permits or inspections because it was merely "cosmetic." But workers say the project involved drilling more than 500 holes through concrete floor slabs to allow for new pipes and wires — holes that ought to be "fire stopped," but weren’t. At least twice, core drillers snapped post-tension cables in those floor slabs. "It sounded like a gun," one worker recalls.

"Cosmetic" work?

If all the walls between the widened suites are new, that means all the electrical wiring and outlets are new — and uninspected.

Why does Mr. Maddox’s inspection report not specify which rooms he inspected, what floors they were on, how they were selected, or how he could miss such massive changes from the original, unrevised floor plans he had to be looking at?

Mr. Maddox did not follow department practice and he will "receive appropriate guidance," replied Ron Lynn, director of Development Services, last month.

Mr. Lynn further said last month he’d be happy to answer follow-up questions — but has since clammed up, claiming he can’t talk about an "ongoing investigation."

What investigation is that? The one Mr. Maddox closed down last February, after being led around and allowed to unscrew a couple lightbulbs?

Professional consultants hired by the Review-Journal to inspect two 19th-floor rooms that the newspaper rented found lights and electrical receptacles in each room which did not appear on approved plans. There is no indication those new fixtures were ever inspected. If a receptacle is not checked for polarity, it’s possible for a ground fault — the kind of fault that started the MGM Grand fire — to go undetected.

There’s no evidence, yet, that rooms in the Ipanema Tower are unsafe. But there’s also no evidence that they’re safe. The county spends a lot of money retaining Mr. Lynn and his department to make sure renovation plans are checked, and work inspected, so we don’t have to "just cross our fingers." Is it really possible for entire floors of a major hotel in the Strip corridor to be gutted — for hundreds of workers to be involved over a period of months — and for this county department to have no idea what’s going on?

Harrah’s Entertainment is due to be sold, later this year. Presumably officials there are racing even now to provide the prospective buyers with estimates of what it might cost to tear out all that renovation work and re-do it. Maybe they’ll want to remediate some of those post-tension cables that sounded like "guns going off" as they were cut, as well.

But, as important as that is, it’s not the most important investigation now required.

The most important investigation now required is that which needs to be launched by state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, into what has to be either gross incompetence or willful malfeasance on the part of the county office of Development Services.

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