OAKLAND – The city’s public ethics commission voted Monday to fine a former city building permit inspector $ 55,000 over accusations that he violated Oakland’s government ethics act by accepting bribes and misusing his position.
The seven-member commission, which is tasked with investigating and enforcing breaches of the city’s various ethics laws, voted unanimously to impose a $ 5,000 penalty for each of 11 violations it found against Anthony Harbaugh, a former building inspector with the city. The violations include soliciting money from property owners in exchange for a “pass” on certain inspections.
Harbaugh – who denied violating the city law in a public ethics commission hearing in November – was tipped off to the commission’s investigators several years ago when they started looking into Thomas Espinosa, another former building inspector who is alleged to have taken thousands of dollars in bribes from property owners whose buildings he was inspecting and failed to report to the city that he received large sums in contracting work from people whose properties he was inspecting.
That case is still pending and is the subject of a federal investigation, according to city records. In the course of the investigation, the ethics commission found Harbaugh was potentially part of the racket.
At a November hearing, the commission’s enforcement chief, Kellie Johnson, laid out the allegations against Harbaugh in a two-day hearing in front of hearing officer Jodie Smith.
According to investigators, property owner Elizabeth Williams hired Espinosa as an electrical contractor for a rental property, and Espinosa had Harbaugh approve his work on the property despite other inspectors having already declined to pass it. Williams paid a bribe to Espinosa, who then paid out Harbaugh, investigators allege.
Johnson reiterated the seriousness of the charges on Monday, noting that in allowing property owners to pay bribes in exchange for a “pass” on an inspection, Harbaugh put residents at risk.
The ethics commissioners appeared to agree. The $ 55,000 in penalties they approved was far above the $ 22,000 fine recommended by the hearing officer. For many of the counts, the commissioners increased the recommended fines, and in some, they instituted fines where the hearing officer had not.
Some commissioners explained during the meeting their reasons for the increase in fines were because the offenses are “serious” health and safety risks.
“It is not uncommon for newspapers in Oakland to be filled with problems with fires breaking out, problems with roofs collapsing, problems with floors falling through because of shoddy work being done on housing in our community,” said Johnson during the ethics commission meeting on Monday. “This is not about personal greed, this is about the safety of residents.”