by Jay A. McCalla

We learned about the utility of the “little guy” during the George W. Bush years when a couple of sergeants at Guantanamo Bay were held solely accountable for torturing prisoners. We now know torture was a policy vetted by the Justice Department, approved by the U.S. Attorney General, directed by the White House and known to the President.

My mind drifted back to those luckless “little guys” when it was recently reported that Griffin Campbell was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment connected to the preventable collapse of a freestanding, three-story wall that crushed the Salvation Army building at 22nd and Market streets, killing six innocent souls and injuring 13 more.

As with the Guantanamo fall guys, Griffin’s personal culpability is beyond denial. He was the contractor hired to perform the demolitions in the 2100 block of Market St. The unsupported wall he left standing was bound to collapse either towards the Salvation Army or away from it.

However great the negligence or incompetence of this poor schnook, there was a hierarchy that selected and contracted him, ignoring far more reputable firms. STB Investment Corp. was that hierarchy. STB had planned to erect an extensive, modern complex that would enliven that stretch of Market Street, investing tens of millions of dollars.

Months were spent negotiating the city processes – zoning, planning, City Council, the Fire Department (the city had turned over an active firehouse for demolition by STB) and the Commerce Department. This project was rigorously vetted and expedited at the highest levels of our government and, happening as it was in the district of Council President Darrell Clarke, was a very high priority.

Given the wealth, experience and sophistication of New York-based STB, it is hard to imagine what motivated them to sign a contract with Griffin to demolish the several standing buildings for the transparently bogus price of $10,000. As a former Deputy Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia overseeing large scale demolition, I can tell you the average two-story row house can’t be demolished for $10,000. Give or take, this demolition should have cost more than $300k.

The rich guys who set the stage for the foreseeable carnage will be dealt with in the courts as they fend off the many civil suits seeking what they value most: their money. Justice winds their way.

Just as we have the Philly Shrug, we have the Philly Rug, under which the real blame may have been swept.

Michael Nutter designed his government, in violation of the City Charter, so the Department of Licenses and Inspections no longer reported to the Managing Director. He subordinated it to the Commerce Director, effectively making this law enforcement entity part of the city’s “developer satisfaction team”. There’s a natural tension between L&I and developers. Constraining their independence would nicely suit the often stated Nutter/Clarke goal of “making us developer friendly.”

Given the very high importance of this project and eminently visible location of the demolition, why did L&I never inspect the site once demolition had begun? Who handled the several calls from citizens complaining about unsafe conditions? Why did those calls NOT translate into emergency inspections? Was L&I under any sort of order, explicit or implicit, to stay out of the way of this politically connected developer?

These questions have been swept under the Philly Rug, but we can still see the lump where the dirt accumulated.

The final, most profound question concerns the grievous, ghastly suicide of the veteran L&I inspector assigned to the project. What was it that so afflicted his soul that he took his life the very next day. This desperate man left two suicide messages, and it would be foolish to assume they weren’t directly relevant to the collapse.

Deep mysteries remain despite almost three years, two trials, months of separate investigations by City Council and a panel handpicked by Nutter himself. The Philly Rug is real.

To be clear, these questions aren’t exclusively about the past. Council President Darrell Clarke is a powerful proponent of making L&I a permanent underling to the Director of Commerce and contemplates a charter change to make it so.

If the policing powers of L&I have been at all compromised and contributed to this shame of shames, we need to know.

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