Hiring of Beaufort County building codes director questioned

achristnovich@beaufortgazette.com emoody@islandpacket.comMay 19, 2012 

  • Two Beaufort County inspectors accused of accepting bribes in exchange for building permits are scheduled to appear in court June 29, according to the 14th Circuit Court's website.

    Larry Fields, 61, of Seabrook and Harold Cosby, 66, of Shell Point were charged May 11 with one felony count each of "offering, giving, soliciting, or receiving anything of value to influence action of public employee, member or official."

    Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the investigation continues. County administrator Gary Kubic said he directed staff to cooperate with authorities but declined further comment.

Beaufort County's new building codes director says it is important the public has confidence in his department, which has been the subject of past and present controversies regarding the quality of its work.

But those who hired Chuck Atkinson in December say they had no idea that the quality of his work also had been questioned. A structural failure in a building he inspected injured a 72-year-old man, prompted at least two lawsuits and cost Atkinson's former boss a state-issued license.

Port Royal town manager Van Willis said he would have gladly told a three-member search committee more about the balcony collapse at Jefferson Commons had they asked.

But Atkinson didn't list his tenure at Port Royal on his resume.

Nonetheless, Willis said he was surprised no one on the search committee called Port Royal to ask about Atkinson's work there. Despite the omission on Atkinson's resume, someone should have remembered Atkinson went to work there after leaving a job with the county in 2005, Willis said.

When Willis heard through the grapevine that Atkinson had been hired by the county, he called county administrator Gary Kubic to fill him in. "I wish you had called me earlier," Willis recalled Kubic saying.

Kubic, who followed the committee's recommendation to hire Atkinson, said last week he stands by Atkinson's hiring and the process that led to it. In fact, in April, after Willis' conversation with Kubic, Beaufort County Council voted to expand Atkinson's duties.

Atkinson's omission of his time at Port Royal from his resume "is a story," Kubic said, but he doesn't believe it's an offense that warrants firing. Besides, "he's got the state saying he didn't do anything wrong," Kubic added.

The S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's investigation of the balcony collapse, released in February 2011, dismissed Atkinson's involvement, saying he "did not violate any of the laws and regulations." However, the regulatory body stripped his supervisor, Dan Lemieux, of the license that allows him to inspect buildings in South Carolina.

Willis is still upset about that ruling.

Lemieux, who declined to be interviewed for this story, admitted his mistakes to the board and didn't appeal its findings. But Atkinson bears responsibility, too, Willis said. Records indicate he signed off on 10 of the 11 inspections of Jefferson Commons performed during his time with the town, which ended before the balcony collapse when he took a similar job with Florence County.

Atkinson's involvement in the Port Royal collapse -- and the fact the county didn't learn of it until after he was rehired -- could prove to be another nick in the reputation of a department that came under serious scrutiny in 2007, when hundreds of homes in Sun City Hilton Head were found to have improperly installed roof trusses, a problem county inspectors had missed.

And a little more than a week ago, inspectors Larry Fields and Harold Cosby were charged with one count each of taking bribes to sign off on building inspections they never performed. Atkinson has not been implicated, and Kubic said county staff has been instructed to cooperate with investigators.

PORT ROYAL COLLAPSE

When Willis hired Atkinson in 2005, he didn't imagine he would be gone less than a year later.

Atkinson came with a long list of professional credentials from the state licensing agency and the International Codes Council, and Willis thought Atkinson might some day take over for Lemieux, a well-regarded 40-year employee.

Among Atkinson's assignments was inspecting the Jefferson Commons project, a development on Paris Avenue featuring retail space on the buildings' bottom floors and living quarters on the second and third stories. Atkinson performed most of the inspections during his time with Port Royal. However, the final inspection, by Lemieux, came after Atkinson left to take the job in Florence's building codes department.

Both Willis and Atkinson agree he left the town on good terms.

On Feb. 12, 2008, about 16 months after the final inspection of Jefferson Commons, 72-year-old Donald Witfield stepped onto the balcony of the third-story unit he was renting. It collapsed beneath him, and he dropped 22 feet to the ground.

Witfield suffered a fractured vertebra, rib, hip socket and facial bones, and a blockage in a lung artery, according to his lawsuit against defendants that included North Carolina-based builder Jeff Keever Construction. Witfield spent time in Charleston at the Medical University of South Carolina's intensive-care unit and in rehab, where he was "re-taught how to walk," his lawsuit claims.

That suit was settled out of court in 2010. The attorney representing Witfield would not comment on the settlement at the time. Attempts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.

Witfield also sued Port Royal but agreed to drop his case in July 2010 after the town's insurance company agreed to pay about $50,000, according to Willis.

And the S.C. State Building Codes Council, which handles construction-related complaints brought to the state licensing department, came down hard on Lemieux. It concluded in January 2011 that he didn't follow licensing laws when he issued a building permit to Keever Construction, which held only a residential builder's license and was unqualified for a project that included commercial space.

A forensic engineering evaluation found that construction deficiencies led to the balcony collapse. Lemieux should have detected some, if not all, of the deficiencies, the order said. It added that Lemieux delegated too much authority to Atkinson and failed to properly supervise him.

Without an inspector's license, Lemieux cannot legally review building plans or conduct inspections, and the town has reassigned him to other duties, Willis said.

The Building Codes Council also dismissed a complaint against Atkinson. During his hearing, Atkinson testified the balcony and its railings were placed but not firmly attached during his last inspection, according to the council's final order. The second-to-last inspection sheet signed by Atkinson, on Aug. 16, 2006, notes the railings must support 250 pounds but does not mention that the balcony wasn't securely attached to the building.

The last inspection Atkinson performed, on Aug. 31, 2006, notes no problems.

Lemieux assigned Atkinson to inspect the building, Willis said. A building permit was issued Oct. 21, 2005, and Atkinson was responsible for all inspections of the building until his resignation, according to the state licensing department's final order on Atkinson's case.

The Building Codes Council report noted that Atkinson was not responsible for the final approval and had recommended some corrective action during interior inspections of the building.

But Willis argues that by the final inspection, which Lemieux performed because Atkinson had moved on to another job, "re-inspection would not be possible except through the destruction of building to see inside walls."

Defects in the balcony's construction would not have been evident, he said.

THE HIRING PROCESS

Atkinson said he remembers learning of the balcony collapse from newspaper accounts. At the time, he was working for the Chicago-based International Codes Council and living in Florence County.

"It's always shocking when something like that happens," he said. "You're asking if I had concerns about whether I had done something wrong? No. I had no concern with that at all."

Atkinson said he forgot to list his time at Port Royal on the resume he submitted as part of his application to become Beaufort County's chief codes inspector because he was there less than a year. His application says he ended a codes inspector job in Beaufort County in May 2005 and started as codes director in Florence County the same month.

"If there's any thought at all that that was planned to hide anything, that's kind of ludicrous," Atkinson said. "There's nothing malicious, nothing hidden, nothing secretive about what happened. ... Yeah, I worked there. Yeah, the porch collapsed and mistakes were obviously made, but I didn't make them."

Atkinson was born in Beaufort County and is the son of former county Councilman Ron Atkinson, who owns a construction company. Building and building inspection have been a part of the younger Atkinson's life "literally as far back as I can remember."

"I'm a very meticulous person. I take what I do very seriously," Atkinson said. "This isn't just a job to me ... public trust in this business is paramount."

On the search committee that recommended Atkinson were Beaufort County director of employee services Suzanne Gregory, planner Tony Criscitiello and then-deputy facilities management director Larry Beckler. They were assigned by deputy county administrator Bryan Hill.

According to Gregory, Atkinson told her he had worked for Port Royal, but that was at about the time he learned he had been recommended for the job. Gregory jotted a note about his tenure there on his resume.

The balcony collapse never came up, however.

"Probably, a phone call would have been made" had she known of Atkinson's time in Port Royal earlier in the search, Gregory said. "If (applicants) don't include a job on an application, we can't check it."

The hiring panel established minimum qualifications, sorted through applications and developed a scoring system to rate candidates, according to Gregory. Four of 42 applicants were interviewed, she said.

After deciding Atkinson likely would be the choice, Gregory pulled Atkinson's employee file from his stint from 2002 to 2005 as a codes inspector with the county.

Criscitiello said he called two of Atkinson's former bosses, both of whom gave him good reviews. One was Bill Hoge, Florence County's building codes director until 2009. Attempts to reach Hoge for comment were unsuccessful.

The other reference was from the man Atkinson sought to replace, Arthur Cummings, who retired in June and was Atkinson's boss for four years. Cummings also declined to comment for this article.

Criscitiello said he doesn't second-guess the decision to hire Atkinson but "would have asked a question about" his work in Port Royal during the October interview had he known about it.

But seeing no red flags, the panel committee was ready to make its recommendation.

County panels sometimes submit as many as three recommendations from which Kubic or Hill can select a hire, but the panel forwarded only Atkinson's name because he scored much higher than the other finalists, Gregory said.

"This particular situation was so one-sided," she said.

Beckler said Atkinson's work experience was impressive. At the time of his interview, Atkinson was a director for education curriculum at the International Codes Council. The council is a national building-codes certification and education organization.

"If anyone would know the codes better, it would be someone who worked for code council," Beckler said.

"He was the most articulate of candidates," added Criscitiello. "He spoke with confidence, and the way he carried himself was very convincing. If he were put in front of a microphone on TV, he would come across as a polished professional."

Kubic said he had no reason to doubt the panel's recommendation.

"By the time you reach me," Kubic said, "I make the assumption that you're qualified and that you have been reviewed -- that people talk to you, and they like you and that's why they move you up to me."

Follow reporter Anne Christnovich at twitter.com/EyeOneBftCo.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeOnPortRoyal.

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