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October 24, 2014

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DAILY MEMO: citycenter:

Harmon flaws haven’t brought big fallout

County hearings on inspections delayed

Beyond the Sun

Click to enlarge photo

Retooling the Harmon: The Harmon Hotel, part of the CityCenter complex, is shown Dec. 30.

It has been almost a year since an engineer discovered that the Harmon Hotel at CityCenter was riddled with construction problems.

On floors 6 through 20, contractors had installed the wrong amount of reinforcing steel in the wrong places. In some cases where the rebar stuck out of the concrete, workers had sawed it off so that it wouldn’t show.

After it became clear that fixing the problems wouldn’t be easy — or cheap — those deficiencies became a determining factor, along with the weak economy, in MGM Mirage’s decision to finish the Harmon at half its designed height.

The Harmon problems were the most extreme at the costliest commercial construction site in the country. But so far the governmental body entrusted with regulating and ensuring the integrity of buildings hasn’t come down on those responsible.

The county’s Department of Development Services has said it believes that in addition to the general contractor, Perini Building Co., and subcontractor, Pacific Coast Steel, inspectors employed by Converse Consultants dangerously erred by issuing dozens of reports declaring that rebar at the Harmon was being installed to code when it was not.

The county, like many other jurisdictions, relies on third-party inspectors to watch over complicated construction procedures. Problems are supposed to be reported to county employees so they can issue correction notices to contractors.

On Aug. 8, 2008, county inspectors issued a notice of violation stating that the rebar was not installed correctly and said it appeared the two Converse Consultants, Scott Edberg and Joseph Glenn Laurente, had been “negligent in their inspections.”

Since then, the wheels of accountability have turned slowly.

After initial administrative fines and an investigation, the county in February referred Converse to a hearings officer for further review. It took six months to deliver that memo, which essentially contained the same information that inspectors reported in August.

The investigation left untouched whether Edberg and Laurente had actually observed the construction as they had purported to or didn’t understand that the rebar wasn’t built to code.

The hearing was scheduled for March, then delayed until early May. Now it is planned for June 30.

The hearings officer could suspend Converse from doing inspections in the county for a period of time. Edberg and Laurente could be stripped of their certifications to conduct inspections in some or all areas, or required to pass new tests.

County director of development services Ron Lynn said the hearings officer approved the delay sought by Converse attorneys. Converse representatives could not be reached for comment.

MGM Mirage spokesman Gordon Absher noted that the gaming giant continues to use Converse as its primary inspection team at CityCenter because county code doesn’t allow owners to fire private inspectors.

Now that construction has slowed, the county has been able to beef up its program to monitor private inspectors. It increased the number of monitors at CityCenter from two to four, and is training two dozen county inspectors to serve as monitors of the special inspection program.

Lynn said the county is also developing an ethics class that private special inspectors would take before they are approved by the county.

Lynn says the inspection system is stronger than ever, but from outside the department it’s hard to tell.

Given that the county appears to have never investigated the circumstances or interviewed anybody about the problems at the Harmon, even when the hearings occur the public is unlikely to learn exactly how the system broke down in the first place.

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