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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Even though Journeyman has been certified with Maryland as a minority contractor since 1989, Mr. Harvey says he never had luck with getting state work. This time, he was trying to figure out how to land a share of the contract when he bumped into Mr. Peters.

"One day, I met Leon, like I ran into him. And I said a fellow had steered me to this position, and I really needed the job," Mr. Harvey said. "He said, 'I'll give them a call and maybe set it up for you.' "

Mr. Peters was true to his word. At the time, Homewood was looking for a qualified minority subcontractor to do work on the state job, installing ramps, automatic doors, and fire safety equipment to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mr. Behner, Homewood's project manager, said one of his subcontractors recommended Journeyman for the electrical portion of the contract. Mr. Harvey put him in touch with Mr. Peters, who went to one of the state office buildings last September to discuss the wiring for emergency lights on the fire alarms.

"See, he's the electrician," Mr. Behner said. "He's the one who does the conduit routing. He plans the work for the guys."

In September, Mr. Peters signed a state contract with Homewood, which agreed to pay Journeyman 42 percent of the $294,700 job that is supposed to be completed by June 10. The Board of Public Works approved the contract Oct. 11, and the state issued a notice to proceed on Nov. 8.

On the form, filed with the Maryland Department of General Services, Mr. Peters represented Journeyman and certified that the company is a minority business.

Last month, Mr. Peters was back out on the job, helping the Journeyman work crews get started. "They were having some typical construction problems, and he came out," Mr. Behner said

From the start, Mr. Peters was upfront about his work as a city electrical inspector. Mr. Behner says he concluded that it didn't matter because it was up to the state to inspect the work.

What Mr. Behner didn't know is that Mr. Peters continued issuing permits and signing off on other work the company was doing.

On Dec. 4, a month after Homewood got a state notice to proceed, Mr. Peters filled out and signed a permit for the company to do painting at a city elementary school, records show.

On Jan. 29, after his inspectors surveyed offices built by Journeyman for a city alcohol treatment program in Park Heights, Mr. Peters rubber-stamped his approval. The work -- for $24,999 -- was not competitively bid because it was $1 short of the city bidding threshold.

Despite his claim that he never has personally inspected Journeyman's work, a document indicates he did more than ratify one inspection.

On Sept. 9, 1994, he signed his name as the inspector who checked the installation of smoke detectors, a new sump pump and a water line by Journeyman at a home repaired with a city loan in the 4200 block of Fernhill Ave. on the northwest side.

He also certified inspections twice of work done by Mr. Harvey's company under the Housing Authority's no-bid repair program, records show. Journeyman received $152,811 worth of work to repair 15 homes.

In an hourlong interview last week, Mr. Harvey said he does good work and tries to "make an honest dollar." He called the city's inspectors tough but fair, and said Mr. Peters is "a nice guy, a guy who helped me out."

"This is the first job I've had this large," he said. "What Mr. Peters did, I certainly appreciate it."

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