Attorney Edward Robson would like me to "keep in context" the umpteen L&I violations of David Damaghi, his real-estate developer client.
"He didn't buy these buildings and run them into the ground," Robson says of the 17 buildings and 10 parcels of Philly land that New Yorker Damaghi owns through seven different LLCs. "They were blighted before he purchased them. They had been vacant for years. His goal is to develop them into something productive."
But I have to wonder how many disasters might happen between now and then.
In January, the city shut down one of Damaghi's buildings – a warehouse with 50 business tenants at 2066 W. Hunting Park Ave. – after finding that its many fire, plumbing, and building violations presented "a threat to life and safety."
And this week, the city took Damaghi to court for more than 100 violations on his other properties, including a warehouse at 3039 B St., that the Department of Licenses and Inspections described as a "potential death trap" because of its "trove" of fire-code violations and lack of zoning and use permits.
So, I tell Robson, if he's looking for context, here's the only one that matters:
Philly has had three horrific warehouse fires in the last 11 years. All had out-of-town landlords who thumbed their noses at codes meant to keep their properties safe and secure. As a result, neighboring properties went up in a blaze; in the worst conflagration – the 2012 Buck Hosiery catastrophe at York and Jasper Streets – firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney were killed when a wall collapsed.
"There was a lot of blame to go around on that fire, starting with the building owners — they loaded the gun," says Sweeney's forever-grieving father, David, himself a retired Fire Department captain. He and his wife, Marian, feel new pangs every time another real-estate speculator's property fills the sky with flames.
Philly's warehouses aren't the only properties being neglected to death or illegally reworked for new purposes, often with horrific consequences. In March, an unlicensed boarding home caught fire in North Philly, killing four people. L&I has since launched a full review of about 30 other buildings that the property's out-of-town owner, California-based Granite Hill Properties, owns in neighborhoods across North and Southwest Philadelphia.
Ben Waxman, spokesman for DA Larry Krasner, says city officials have asked his boss to look into possible criminal charges against Granite Hill's owner, Tyrone Duren, but he wouldn't confirm or deny that an investigation is underway. For helpful context (there's that word again) Krasner may want to look to Oakland, Calif., where a 2016 warehouse fire killed 36 people. Two men — Derick Almena and Max Harris — have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the disaster and will head to trial in July.
Meantime, thank God that L&I is reining in Damaghi before his dream of developing "something productive" for the city becomes a charred nightmare for the rest of us. The man ought to thank L&I for saving him from himself.
In court on Tuesday, L&I took the unusual step of "bundling" all Damaghi's code violations into one massive case before Common Pleas Court Judge Nina Wright Padilla.
It was a smart move. Landlords like Damaghi, who often operate via multiple privacy-protecting LLCs – limited-liability companies – can be tough to identify. So when they come before a judge for a violation, it's hard to know if their violation is a one-off mistake or indicative of a broader pattern of bad behavior.
L&I, though, has new LLC-cracking technology, used by a four-person research team, to learn whether a landlord with troubling violations at one property has other properties where disasters are also waiting to happen.
In Damaghi's case, the violations created a stack of manila files so high, with details so complicated, that Judge Padilla was able to get through only one property's infractions on Tuesday. Both sides will be back in court on Thursday and in the coming weeks to plow through the rest.
L&I's director of enforcement, Ann Agnes Pasquariello, has big hopes for this new method of holding property owners' feet to the fire.
"You can bring a guy to court on three different dates for four different properties and the judge might not connect the dots," says Pasquariello. "But if you bring them all on the same date, it gives the judge and the public a better understanding of the acts of an individual. It's powerful."
Attorney Robson insists that all of Damaghi's violations have been "addressed," but wouldn't comment on any specific property while the cases are working their way through Padilla's court.
He did, however, accuse L&I of going after Damaghi alone, even though his properties have different ownership structures with multiple partners.
"To single him out is not fair and not accurate," says Robson. "In the big picture, maybe that doesn't matter much. But every time I hear his name used alone, it irks me."
Awww. Poor guy.
You know what should irk all of us?
When I asked Robson if he would share the names of Damaghi's partners with L&I, so the department could check their code records, too, he back-pedaled, saying he wasn't privy to the names of Damaghi's fellow investors. Nor would he agree to advise Damaghi, who wasn't in court on Tuesday, to cough up their names — even though it would relieve Damaghi from being "singled out."
"It's not on anyone's front lobe right now," he demurred. "We are going to continue to work with the city as is appropriate, and if [the names] become relevant at some point, we'll address that."
And that, folks, is the craven "context" of the circumstances of Damaghi — who, alone or with his mysterious LLC partners, owes the city $40,615 in 2017 real-estate taxes.