October 17, 2011

Another city employee found preying on immigrants

A woman working in the Los Angeles Housing Department collected payoffs from Korean Americans, authorities say. She received a sentence and could face more penalties.

Glen Lim and his mother were anxious to find someone who could explain how their apartment building in Mid-Wilshire had gotten into so much trouble with Los Angeles housing inspectors — and what they could do to fix the problem.

Eun Chavis seemed like the perfect answer. She was smart, a veteran city employee and a Korean American who spoke the only language Lim's mother, the manager of his building, understood.

But instead of bringing the building into compliance, Chavis used her position at the Los Angeles Housing Department's Koreatown office to collect $16,000 in payoffs from Lim and his family, according to criminal court records, police reports and interviews.

By the time she was arrested, Chavis had allegedly demanded $27,000 from other victims who spoke limited English and were trying to navigate the city bureaucracy.

Chavis' case is the third to surface in recent months involving a city employee accused of preying on immigrant communities they were supposed to be helping.

To some, it shows how public agencies can become vulnerable to such misconduct in multiethnic Los Angeles, where cultural and language barriers can make illegal behavior harder to detect.

A well-publicized corruption investigation in the Department of Building and Safety has led to convictions of two Spanish-speaking inspectors who preyed on Latino contractors, records show. Last year, a Korean landlord who spoke limited English alleged in a lawsuit that a Korean-speaking Building and Safety supervisor advised him to resolve his city inspection problems by paying $15,000 to a company with which the supervisor had ties. The city employee settled the case and retired in May.

"To me, this is like a decay inside the bone," said Councilman Ed Reyes, who said the recent cases point to the need for better supervision of employees dealing with housing and building issues. "We need to find where the decay exists and learn from it. How did this person get away with it?"

City officials and community leaders say immigrant victims of corruption are often hesitant to speak out because of either fear of the repercussions or uncertainty about when an authority figure has crossed a line. "When you're bridging two cultures, you don't know what the norms are," said Grace Yoo, executive director of the nonprofit Korean American Coalition. "You don't know that someone is taking advantage of you."

Moreover, foreign-born residents who run into problems with local agencies may be conditioned by experiences in their homelands to accept graft as a solution, officials say.

Chavis' case is remarkable, investigators said, because she was a clerk typist with no real authority. But she was the only Korean speaker working the counter at the Housing Department's office on Wilshire Boulevard. That made her the first point of contact for landlords, including immigrants like Lim trying to move up the economic ladder by investing in rental units.

Lim, who moved to the United States with his family in 1990, suspects that Chavis demanded money from more victims than the few identified by police. Yet Housing Department officials said they never tried to determine whether that was true, partly because Chavis' communications with customers weren't closely monitored.

"We simply don't know what interactions she had," said Roberto Aldape, the department's assistant general manager. "People come to the public counter all the time, so there would be no way to track it."

Chavis was charged last year with 11 felony bribery counts. An arrest warrant has been issued for her husband, Frank Max Chavis, who was charged with five related bribery counts. He has remained in South Korea and out of reach of police.

In a deal with prosecutors, Eun Chavis pleaded no contest to a single felony bribery count and spent less than a month in jail. She finished her one-year sentence at home with a monitoring bracelet but faces the possibility of additional penalties for a probation violation.

Los Angeles Police Lt. Mathew St. Pierre, head of the commercial crimes division, said he couldn't speak officially for the department, but he was personally unhappy with the outcome. "The punishment didn't fit the crime," he said.

Chavis' lawyer, Matthew Kohn, would not discuss the specific victims but argued that those who give bribes are as culpable as those who accept them. He also said his client had been punished enough. "She is staying at home, doing nothing. She's unemployable. It's very hard on her," he said.

Citations received

For Lim and his mother, 62-year-old Jeom Kum Yun, the trouble began in 2006, when they started receiving citations from Housing Department inspectors. The Lims had added extra units to their property without the necessary approvals.

Lim's mother turned to Chavis, whom she had met at a Christmas party.

Chavis told Yun that she needed to pay to get proper documents, according to Yun and her son. Yun said she repeatedly took checks to Chavis at the department's offices on Wilshire.

The violation notices, however, kept arriving and their rental units remained empty. As their financial woes mounted, Chavis recommended a contractor to tear out the unpermitted work, Yun and Lim said. They took out a loan, Lim said, and paid the contractor $30,000.

Lim, 32, eventually filed for bankruptcy, and lenders foreclosed on his building. He sued the city, claiming his family suffered financially from Chavis' illegal activities, but a judge dismissed the case on procedural grounds. Lim is now suing Chavis.

"Whenever we think about what we lost, of course we get angry and upset," said Lim, who works at a credit card processing company.

Chavis, 58, also used her position to steer money to her husband, who worked as a property manager, according to court records.

Suk Myong Kim, another Korean landlord who told investigators she paid Chavis thousands, recounted meeting the clerk in 2005, when she went to the Housing Department. Chavis advised her to stay away from other housing officials, Kim recalled in an interview in her Hollywood home. "She said … 'You're a Korean. So if you have a question, you come to me.'"

On Chavis' recommendation, Kim hired Frank Chavis to help her with problems at her various rental properties. Kim said she didn't make a connection because Eun Chavis always identified herself by her Korean name.

Kim told police she paid the couple more than $43,000.

A third victim, Koreatown property owner Chong K. Myong, made out somewhat better. He paid Chavis $5,000 to secure permits needed to rebuild a fire-damaged building on Irolo Street, according to records.

When he learned that Chavis lacked the authority to issue such permits, he demanded his money back, according to police reports. Chavis gave him a $5,000 check — but warned that his property "would never pass inspection."

By the end of 2008, Kim and Lim had had enough and complained to housing officials, then police.

Housing officials said Chavis was the only employee involved in the scheme. After her arrest in September 2010, those officials did not call public attention to the case. High-level officials in the city attorney's office, the Personnel Department and the Department of Building and Safety learned of the bribery investigation only as a result of inquiries from The Times.

After her termination, Chavis began receiving a $31,056-a-year city pension, officials said — a fact that infuriated her victims. "This person is a thief," Kim said. "America doesn't have … justice at all."

In a postscript to the case, Chavis was charged in June with a probation violation. Deputy Dist. Atty. Dana Aratani said Chavis, still at home with a monitoring bracelet, threatened witnesses. Chavis' attorney disputed that claim, saying his client was in a financial dispute with the witnesses and her comments were misconstrued.

Chavis is scheduled to be sentenced on that violation later this month.

By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times - October 16, 2011

Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.

http://www.latimes.com/

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