City inspector helps win deal for contractor Housing supervisor represented firm to get state work

Henson to investigate

Leon A. Peters has role in permits, reports on company

February 25, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Jim Haner | JoAnna Daemmrich and Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

A senior city inspector is acting as the electrical consultant for a construction company he regulates and has helped the contractor win $125,662 in state government work.

Leon A. Peters, a supervisor of construction and electrical inspections for the Baltimore Housing department, made it possible for Journeyman General Contractors to close the state deal because he provided the electrical expertise the company lacked, the firm's president said. Mr. Peters is already under scrutiny for owning a rundown rental property.

For the past five years, Mr. Peters has been involved in issuing building permits and signing off on city work done by Journeyman -- and he continued to do so while representing the company, according to interviews and documents.

His relationship with Journeyman raises new questions about ethical conflicts among officials charged with enforcing city construction and building codes.

In recent weeks, The Sun has reported that at least five housing officials were allowed to own substandard rental houses in the city for years with little or no enforcement action by their agency.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has since ordered inspections of all rental properties owned by housing employees. In Mr. Peters' case, city inspectors uncovered 17 violations at a three-story apartment house he owns at 4002 Belle Ave. in Northwest Baltimore.

On Friday, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III vowed to investigate the new disclosures about Mr. Peters, who is in charge of city inspectors on the west side.

"I do think that it's important that these guys maintain total objectivity, and they know it," Mr. Henson said. "One should not be inspecting work for a company that one has a relationship with -- businesslike or otherwise."

Mr. Peters, 51, a master electrician who has worked for the city since 1974 and is paid $38,819 a year, refused to discuss the nature of his work for Journeyman.

But in an interview, he said he does not see any conflict of interest because he has never personally inspected Journeyman's work for the city. Rather, he said, his involvement as a city official has been limited to signing off on permits and inspection reports in the normal course of business.

"Whomever comes through this office with an application for a building permit in their hands, all I do is sign off on the fees," Mr. Peters said. "That is all I do, make sure the required fees have been paid. You will not find me personally involved in inspecting Journeyman projects."

James A. Harvey Sr., the founder and president of the construction company based in Parkville, said Mr. Peters did him a favor as an unpaid "consultant," offering friendly advice on how to meet contract requirements in the deal Journeyman signed with the state last fall.

"I just brought him [in] on that particular project because he had the expertise," Mr. Harvey said. "He knew how to go about doing this, and I needed the job. It's all in networking, it may look sort of strange and funny to you, but it's just trying to make ends meet."

But the general contractor overseeing the job, Homewood General Contractors Inc. of Cockeysville, described the relationship differently.

L. Brook Behner, the project manager, said Mr. Peters represented himself as Journeyman's electrician, was intimately involved in planning the wiring of the fire alarm systems and went out to the state office buildings to get work crews started.

The revelations about Mr. Peters' involvement with the company emerge from a review of more than 100 pages of city Housing Administration documents and state records obtained by The Sun.

A city ethics expert suggested even an unpaid relationship could violate decrees against city employees holding positions that might conflict with their jobs.

"Anything they might do that might compromise the objectivity of what they are doing on behalf of the government is a potential problem," said Alan Yuspeh, who chairs the city's ethics board.

Much of Journeyman's business comes from the city through an emergency repair program to help poor and elderly homeowners with such problems as leaking roofs and broken heaters. Mr. Harvey's company, which he incorporated in 1983, has received $247,602 in contracts since July 1991 under the federally funded program run by the Housing Department.

The company also received a share of the $25.6 million in federal funds doled out by the Housing Authority without public bids to repair rundown homes for the poor. Mr. Harvey last was paid by the authority in 1993.

Last summer, Mr. Harvey says, he was facing dwindling work prospects because the city's emergency program was running out of funds.

While he was looking for new construction work, a friend called with a tip about what would turn into his largest government contract. The work: revamping nine state office buildings and district courthouses in Baltimore and the surrounding suburbs to meet federal requirements for the disabled.

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