An apartment building in West Oakland where two building inspectors allegedly took bribes from the owner to approve electrical and other construction inspections. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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At its upcoming meeting on Jan. 4, the Oakland Public Ethics Commission will consider whether or not to impose a penalty of up to $22,000 on former city building permit inspector Anthony Harbaugh for violations of Oakland’s Government Ethics Act

Harbaugh’s troubles with the city began four years ago, when ethics commission investigators were tipped off to allegations that a different building inspector, Thomas Espinosa, was extorting property owners by withholding building permits from them until they paid bribes. In the course of looking into the allegations against Espinosa, investigators identified Harbaugh as a possible accomplice in the scheme. Espinosa was found to be the alleged leader of the two-man “extortion racket,” and Public Ethics Commission investigators recommended in November 2018 that he be fined upwards of $1 million for numerous violations of the city’s ethics laws.

On November 18 of this year, ethics commission investigators presented their case against Harbaugh to a hearing officer, a neutral judge that hears the facts of the case and makes recommendations to the commission about whether a person should be fined for misconduct. During the hearing, Kellie Johnson, the commission’s enforcement chief, accused Harbaugh and Espinosa of putting “personal greed over the safety and protection of the community by giving property owners a pass on inspections in exchange for under the table payments.” Johnson said that not only did the two inspectors extort property owners, they allowed shoddy and potentially dangerous work on homes to be approved, putting tenants at risk of injury.

Elizabeth Williams was one of the landlords who allegedly paid bribes to the pair. According to ethics commission investigators at the hearing, Espinosa engaged in a conflict of interest by having Williams hire him as her electrical contractor for one of her rental properties in West Oakland. Espinosa then had Harbaugh inspect his work on the property and give it a passing grade, even though two different city building inspectors had previously declined to approve the work. Williams then allegedly paid a bribe to Espinosa, and Espinosa paid Harbaugh $300 as part of the scam. Harbaugh allegedly helped Espinosa extort at least three other property owners in a similar fashion. 

Johnson presented evidence at the November hearing suggesting that Espinosa and Harbaugh were in frequent communication about the property owners they were allegedly shaking down for money. Johnson showed the hearing officer information obtained from Espinosa’s phone records, and text messages depicting $300 in cash bribes that the former building inspector appeared to have paid to Harbaugh.

City investigators showed text messages sent by Thomas Espinosa to a West Oakland landlord alleging they show Espinosa paid a $300 bribe to Harbaugh to approve an electrical inspection on the property. Credit: Courtesy city of Oakland

City records and testimony presented at the November hearing also revealed that the FBI questioned Harbaugh and other witnesses, signaling that federal prosecutors might file criminal charges against the former city staffers. According to city records, Williams was given immunity by the FBI to tell what happened.

Harbaugh, representing himself at the November hearing over Zoom, pleaded his innocence. “The only thing I feel I’m guilty of is feeling like Mr. Espinosa was my friend,” he said. Harbaugh told the city’s hearing officer that he and Espinosa were both “addicts” recovering from substance abuse problems and that Espinosa befriended him, but that he never helped Espinosa shake anyone down for money.

“I don’t have any evidence showing my innocence,” Harbaugh said at the hearing. “All I have is my word. I have no knowledge of involvement in what he was doing. I never collected a dime from anybody. You can look through my bank accounts, the FBI already has.”

The city’s hearing officer, Jodie Smith, found otherwise. In her recommendation to the Public Ethics Commission filed November 19, she wrote that Harbaugh committed eight violations of Oakland’s Government Ethics Act.

Attempts to reach Espinosa and Harbaugh by The Oaklandside were unsuccessful.
Espinosa resigned from his position with the city in 2016 after investigators began looking into his actions on the job. In 2018, he filed for bankruptcy and was sued by multiple cannabis cultivation companies who accused him of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017.