L&I lives on Shakedown Street

A photo from the 2012-13 annual report of the Philadelphia Licenses & Inspections Department.

License and Inspections has turned The City of Brotherly Love into Shakedown Street.

No. I’m not talking about my favorite song from the Grateful Dead, although the lyrics are eerily fitting.

“Maybe you had too much too fast. Or just over played your part,” lyricists Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter tell us.

Bur the 1978 lyrics are fitting 36 years later in describing the alleged extortion going on at Philly’s Hall of Shame Award winner known as L&I.

Overplaying their part – and shaking down honest Philadelphians – is what has defined L&I during my lifetime.

As a teenager some 30-plus years ago, I remember visiting a diner in the Frankford/Torresdale section that had been written up in the Philadelphia Daily News for cockroaches. Back then, the Daily News had a regular column that featured restaurants written up for health code violations.

I teased the owner, who told me in a thick Greek accent something to the effect of, “The inspector told me I had cockroaches. I asked him where. Show me. You could eat off my kitchen floor. He turned to me and said, ‘Where’s my envelope?’”

That was my first exposure to graft – Philly style.

A few years afterwards, in October 1990, another one of my favorite restaurants was shut down temporarily by Common Pleas Court because of two suspected cockroaches. Yes. Count that. Two roaches. Dos, as in dos cucarachas. The next month, the Inquirer headline read “Restaurateur Says He's Fed Up And So Fisher's, A Landmark On Broad, Closes.”

The owner’s son, Miles M. Fisher, told the Inquirer, "When they cited me last month for two cockroaches, that was the last straw," later adding, "You just can't win with the city. You can't fight 'em."

When Fisher’s closed, it let go of a staff of 75 people.

Literally two weeks later, its founder, Miles W. Fisher, died. In the obituary, the author reminded us: “The restaurant was closed by Mr. Fisher's son, Miles M., after a dispute with the city Health Department. Mr. Fisher's son maintained he was being harassed by city health officials, while the officials said they were merely following up on numerous health code violations.”

Two cockroaches. Two deaths – a landmark restaurant and then its founder. All within a few weeks.

It was a sad ending for a restaurant that was treasured by me and my family. As a child, I enjoyed dining at Fisher's and have fond memories of the family-owned landmark.

We may never know how many small business owners over the past 40 years have closed their doors because of harassment and extortion from L&I. But I can bet it’s a lot.

From a Facebook statement I made last week – before the current L&I debacle emerged -- let me share with you just a few cases that make the case that L&I is the one of the most corrupt government branches in this city – with a long and storied history of alleged and proven payoffs, extortion and other crimes – from the top of the organization to the bottom. Here are some recent cases:

A building inspector did everything he could to destroy a garage owner who would not sell the garage to him.

L&I workers were accused of looting homes.

A clerk "sold out" his office by allegedly issuing licenses to unqualified people.

These are the cases we know about. There are surely plenty of others that go unreported and/or unknown.

I'll bet Tuesday's story shakes out some courageous Philadelphians who will share their stories. If they share them with me, you may hear about them.

Until then, though, I'm not going to complain without giving a solution. It’s the least I can do.

Our mayor – yes, a guy named Michael Nutter, who these days seems to know Russian politics almost as well as Sarah Palin – needs to show some leadership and read the employees of L&I the Riot Act. After doing so, he and City Council need to lead reform so that L&I can protect us against buildings falling down and killing people instead of picking our pockets.

I’ll provide the quick strategic plan. Mayor Nutter is welcome to say it’s all his idea. I won’t tell anyone. I don’t care. I just want it done. As. In. Now.

First, abolish L&I as we know it. Then reorganize, with a new name (I like “The Department of Buildings”) and a new mission statement. A new culture of professional conduct needs to be established where the focus is placed on serious safety issues for workers, customers and neighbors – not on cockroaches.

Second, enable businesses to start and grow as opposed to tying them up with redundant, complicated and inconsistent inspection processes. Make the inspection process transparent by posting an FAQ online at Phila.gov to address the most typical violations and their solutions.

Third, rotate its inspectors constantly, so that no individual employee oversees a particular area or client more than a year at a time. That will significantly reduce the ability for a bad apple to develop power over a business. Yes, that will make for a steep learning curve. But it will make it difficult for a specific employee to put the arm on an innocent business owner.

Fourth, put an end to L&I moles contacting the unions – on the taxpayer’s dime – the very moment an application is filed by a non-union contractor to renovate a property. This rogue behavior not only creates an environment of distrust, but it leads to harassment of honest business owners. It’s got to stop.

And finally, since everyone except me is into stings these days, we might as well subject L&I to more "testers." Let those corrupt inspectors who even consider extorting money have some major fear in their system.

After all, if Machiavelli were alive today, he’d be saying it’s better to be feared than to be loved, especially when you’re on Shakedown Street.