A side business run by a longtime Glendale building inspector is raising questions about a potential conflict of interest, one that a recent lawsuit claims is "tantamount to a bribe." And it’s not the first time this inspector has been accused of unethical conduct.
Senior Building Inspector Mark Ptashkin has been a Glendale city employee for more than 14 years. He’s also owned MEP Consulting for more than 11 of those years, a firm that offers "electrical design services" and "education on compliance with the National Electrical Code," according to his LinkedIn page.
A lawsuit filed by a Glendale business owner accuses Ptashkin of using his authority for personal gain, claiming he leveraged his role with the city to drum up business for his side company, within city limits.
"He used his position as a building inspector to identify violations and then attempted to secure financial gain to remedy said violations," wrote attorney Carl A. Guerrieri on behalf of the owner of B & L Pools. "This is a complete and utter conflict of interest and clear violation of [state law]."
Citing the ongoing litigation, the city declined to comment on the case and inspector Ptashkin did not respond to requests for an interview. However, documents obtained via a public records request show Ptashkin denied any wrongdoing, and the city’s Development Services director concluded the allegation of some kind of extortion or a bribe was unfounded.
But city records also show that Ptashkin was previously disciplined in 2012 for profiting on information gathered in his role as an inspector, and the documents paint a picture of a city that is more tolerant of potential conflicts and more lax on record-keeping requirements than other Valley municipalities.
The battle over B & L Pools
The allegations against Ptashkin were raised in a lawsuit filed by the owner of B & L Pools, Dale Howard. Howard owns seven pool stores throughout the Valley, including two in Glendale.
According to the lawsuit, Ptashkin inspected Howard’s building at 5201 W. Peoria Ave. in January 2013 and found four minor code violations.
"He said, ‘I do consulting on the side. I can get you out of trouble with the Cty of Glendale,’" said Howard. "I said I don’t do that."
After Howard balked at the offer, the lawsuit claims the inspector unleashed a wave of retribution against him two years later that eventually led to the condemnation of the building for six months.
"If I had to redo it, I’d pay the bribe," Howard said. "I don’t know how much it would be, whether it was $1,000 -- $3,000. It would have been money well spent versus the $50,000 I’ve spent trying to get the building back open."
Howard said the location on Peoria lost $300,000 in total revenue in 2015 compared to the year before.
"I did not offer services."
When questioned by the director of the Development Services Department in June of 2015, inspector Ptashkin confirmed he owns an electrical design firm, but denied soliciting business on the side.
"I did not offer services. There is no way I would do that," the report quotes him saying.
Ptashkin told the investigator "he could not assist Mr. Howard because his property is inside Glendale and outside the consulting firm’s area of expertise." The report does not mention, however, that two of the four violations involved electrical issues, according to testimony from a Nov. 14, 2014 property abatement hearing.
The senior inspector said he had conversations with supervisors about the city’s conflict of interest policy, and said former-Building Safety Director Deborah Mazoyer and former-Assistant Building Safety Director Pam Wertz signed off on his business as long as he did not do consulting work inside Glendale. However, there’s no record the investigator confirmed this. Both women retired well before the interview; Wertz in 2014, Mazoyer in 2013.
Although City of Glendale policy requires employees to submit paperwork if they have a "substantial interest" in city actions, decisions, services, or contracts, the internal investigation found city Building Safety Manager Tom Paradise did not file information about the consulting business and suggests he was only vaguely aware of the type of services Ptashkin offered.
"I asked if he [Paradise] recalled having any discussions with Mark about his consulting work," the investigator wrote. "He said ‘Not really.’"
Ptashkin was hired by the city on November 5, 2001. He was honored by the Arizona Building Officials organization in 2014 with the "Brent Snyder Memorial Award," recognizing "continuous dedication" to the education of inspectors and other code officials. Two years earlier, he was disciplined by the city for violating ethical rules.
Profiting on his position
Glendale’s Human Resources department recommended "corrective disciplinary action" against Ptashkin in May 2012, after city investigators determined he profited on information he gathered as an inspector.
The report concluded that after Ptashkin inspected a home in the 8700 block of N. 50th Avenue in Glendale and found major code violations, he purchased the property for $22,000 ($5,000 to the homeowner; $17,000 to an individual who had an existing purchase contract).
The senior inspector then admitted he fixed up the property with the help of two other Glendale building inspectors and flipped it for a profit, according to the report.
In the process, a building permit submitted by Ptashkin’s wife had falsified information. The document concealed Ptashkin’s true ownership and listed a contractor who didn’t actually perform work on the home, the report found. The permit also vastly understated the value of the repairs, listing the value at $1,500 when the actual number was around $30,000.
Ptashkin also admitted that he filed a "deceptive and misleading" abatement report on the home. "Building has been sold, new owner has obtained a building permit and begun making corrections," Ptashkin wrote July 7, 2010. Ptashkin was the owner.
Although Ptashkin admitted that two other Glendale building inspectors helped him perform work on the home, the report absolved the others from blame and did not make a finding as to whether any of the men performed work during their regular shift hours – one of the allegations laid out at the beginning of the inquiry.
A city spokesperson said she hoped to have more information about the nature of the "corrective disciplinary action" taken against Ptashkin on Friday.
The electric fence
Cities have varying degrees of tolerance when it comes to a potential conflict of interest among employees, but the thought of a building inspector offering consulting work on compliance issues – even outside city limits -- didn’t sit well with top building officials in Scottsdale and Tempe.
"If you are providing a service that is typically regulated by yourself or your peers, that’s when you usually want to take some caution there," said City of Tempe Community Development Director Dave Nakagawara.
Some municipalities do allow employees to work in related fields outside city or county limits, Nakagawara said, but he regards the threat of a perceived conflict as "an electric fence."
"I don’t even want to get near it."
Scottsdale Building Inspection Supervisor Steve Gallant said he does not allow his inspectors to do related work outside city limits. None of the 11 inspectors does outside work involving construction codes, he said.
"We’re code officials. We offer information about code. I think that would be a conflict of interest," he said.
Allowing an employee to do outside work in the construction or design industry is particularly worrisome, Nakagawara said, because the consulting work is typically short-term and clients often have a stake in multiple projects, sometimes in multiple cities.
"You need to be able to evaluate all of those situations to make sure there’s no perceived conflict," he said. "It’s the type of business where there’s a lot of temptations out there, so there needs to be some tight controls."
Employees in Scottsdale and Tempe are required to submit written requests before seeking outside employment.
In the City of Glendale, the only official record of Ptashkin’s consulting firm is an email to Building Safety Official Stephen Dudley, according to the results of a sweeping public records request. The March 2015 contains company letterhead and a single line of text.
"Let me know if this is good for you," Ptashkin wrote.Copyright 2016 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.