Contractor had shady past, so how did he get license?
The Drug Enforcement Administration had Griffin T. Campbell dead-to-rights.
It was the middle of the summer in 2000, and a confidential informant bought 56 grams of crack cocaine from Griffin for $1,800 at the Happy Hollow Playground on Wayne Avenue in Germantown – all while DEA agents watched, according to court documents.
Six months later, the same informant returned to Germantown – again under DEA surveillance – and allegedly purchased 54 grams of crack from Campbell, whose construction company was in charge of demolishing a four-story Center City property that collapsed Wednesday, killing six people and injuring 13 others.
The case ended up in the hands of a federal grand jury, and Campbell, 49, ended up behind bars. He was charged with three felonies and faced the prospect of life in prison, the documents show.
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He was scheduled to face a jury trial in October 2005, but then a strange thing happened – the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania lost track of some evidence, and the charges were dismissed.
There were other brushes with the law: A 2009 guilty plea for insurance fraud and a protracted battle with the District Attorney’s Office over a Hunting Park property Campbell owned that was lousy with drug activity.
In January, Campbell became a licensed city contractor.
Despite being a newly minted contractor, he easily secured several demolition permits from the city through the help of a self-described expediter, architect Plato Marinakos Jr.
Numerous people who spoke out in the wake of Wednesday’s horrific tragedy said they were appalled by the seemingly amateur, unsafe nature of the work being done on 2136-38 Market St. before it tumbled onto a neighboring Salvation Army shop, burying customers and employees under bricks and concrete.
According to the city permit for the project, Campbell’s construction company was going to demolish the four-story, 14,552-square-foot building for $10,000.
Critics said questionable contractors and clumsy construction work regularly slip through the cracks in the city because of a lack of meaningful oversight.
“You can’t just grab anybody to do a job like that because they’re cheap,” said John Macklin, the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors.
“What’s [Campbell’s] track record? What has he torn down? Does he have proof that he’s done this kind of work?”
Macklin, who previously served on the city’s Minority Business Enterprise Council, said yesterday that he doesn’t know Campbell. But he said the city has long been plagued by contractors who make low bids for jobs, and “hire guys off the street in their sneakers, without hard hats, and pay them a couple dollars a day to do demolition work.”
“There’s a lack of monitoring from the city and L&I,” Macklin added. “They wait until something bad happens, and then they react, after the damage is done.”
Getting a contractor’s license through the Department of Licenses and Inspections is a straightforward process.
The application for a license costs $200, requires proof of three different types of insurance including a $500,000 general liability policy, and a $1,000 bond. The application does not ask what type of contracting work the applicant plans to do nor does it ask about proficiency.
One requirement is that an applicant is not supposed to be tax delinquent.
But according to the city Revenue Department’s website, Griffin owes close to $4,000 in back taxes on 1339 Pike St., and has been delinquent since 2008.
L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said Griffin provided the agency with paperwork from the city that indicated he wasn’t delinquent.
It was unclear as of last night how Griffin managed to get the paperwork; his tax bill is still listed as unpaid.
Ryan Boyer, the business manager for the Laborers’ District Council, said the union had been working toward requiring specific standards for a demolition license in Philadelphia. Wednesday’s tragedy proves the changes are needed, he said.
Currently, any contractor who has a license with the city, whether they’re in kitchen remodeling or air conditioning, could also demolish a large building if they could get the equipment, Boyer said.
“It’s happening because it’s a race to the bottom,” he said.
Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney suing on behalf of a victim who survived Wednesday’s collapse, said the building should have been demolished from the roof down, working from the back of the property to remove small sections at a time. He said the removal of the building’s facade Sunday, which helped support the west wall, was probably a factor in the collapse.
“Demolition is much more dangerous than construction,” Mongeluzzi said. “It has to be carefully engineered and planned. You can’t just have a bunch of people go in with a backhoe and sledgehammers and start breaking things apart.”
In 2004, the city partnered with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration to promote safety in the demolition industry. More than two dozen contractors took part, according to OSHA, and the efforts resulted in an injury rate lower than the national average. It’s unclear if that program is still in the works today.
An OSHA spokeswoman said one anonymous complaint about Griffin Campbell Construction was received on May 15 in relation to fall hazards at the Market Street site.
Meanwhile, Carl Mason, who runs Central Salvage Co., a demolition firm four blocks from the location of Wednesday’s catastrophe, said he passed the site several times and saw problems with workers on the roof and operating machinery while not wearing hard hats and safety harnesses. Mason said the job could have cost up to $250,000.
Pat Gillespie, the business manager for the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, said two union bricklayers contacted L&I on Tuesday and expressed concern about the Market Street demolition project. After the collapse, they gave statements to investigators.
Kennedy said L&I had no record of a complaint from the bricklayers.
Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, said Campbell must forfeit the 1339 Pike St. house he owns because he failed to sell it last year under a 2011 court agreement with the Public Nuisance Task Force. The task force had targeted Campbell because a tenant was selling drugs out of the property, she said.
“Since he has not sold the property, he is violation of that agreement, so yes, we will move forward to seize that property,” she said.
– Staff writers William Bender and Dana DiFilippo contributed to this report.