How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

City inspectors have written Jack Topletz and his family thousands of tickets for miserable conditions in their rent-house empire. They say they've ended up paying, oh, once or twice.

After a rather lengthy speech from Solis--in which Hiner recalls him wondering aloud whether the system was designed to let property owners skate--the jurors were dismissed and sent home.

Shaw and his boss, Robert Miklos, referred requests for interviews about this case and a number of other matters to their boss, interim City Attorney Angela Washington. She declined to return three telephone calls. Likewise, James Mongaras, director of the city's code-compliance department, did not return multiple calls seeking an interview.

Shaw might have been a victim of inexperience, but at least he tried, which is more than happens in a lot of Topletz cases.

In 1994, in the city's biggest offensive to date against conditions at Topletz houses, the city attorney's office filed a 179-page civil lawsuit against Harold, Dennis, Jack, and a number of other relatives who don't share the same last name but nevertheless own interests in some of the houses: Gloria Schwartz, Bennie A. Goodman, Evelyn Lisner, Richard Suckle, Abe Levin, Gladys Levin, and Ivy Rabinowitz.

The suit included long lists of code violations at more than 200 Topletz houses. It sought a temporary injunction halting the family from renting out the properties, a permanent injunction requiring repairs, and a $1,000 penalty for each violation listed.

Juanita Garcia's house on Alabama is in there with 15 code violations alone: heavy wire over the windows creating a hazard, peeling paint, a rotten porch, holes in the floors, an insufficient water heater, unfit plumbing, no cover on the electrical box, no smoke detector, and "the interior of the structure is heavily infested with insects."

The lawsuit hardly got off to a fast start, and as the file shows, the city did almost nothing to push it along. The two former city attorneys who prepared and signed the monster lawsuit both left the office for private practice before long.

By October 1995, when the case was set for trial, former Assistant City Attorney Mark Benavides noted his call to jury service the month earlier "as causing a delay in the preparation of this case." Both sides agreed to a continuance.

The next year, the city asked for another continuance "so settlement negotiations can continue."

In August 1997, yet another attorney was on the case, Walter C. Davis III, and he, too, was agreeable about putting off a trial.

"My job is delay. It's not my work to push these things along," recalls Trantham.

Davis, who is still with the city attorney's office, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

If a settlement was reached--and that is extremely doubtful--it was never recorded in the court files. Instead, the case was dismissed by a judge's order in December 1997. The reason: "Want of prosecution."

"We fixed all those. It was dismissed for compliance," says Dennis Topletz when asked what happened to the big case and the 200 houses. "They spent millions getting that thing together."

At the city, there's nobody to say whether the expensive stack of paper prompted the Topletzes to fix a single rotten floorboard. If it did, the little house on Alabama, for one, didn't stay fixed long.

On December 4, 1997, just four days before the huge lawsuit was dismissed, an inspector was at the Alabama house again. She wrote at least one citation: failure to fix "rotten wood and holes in floor--potential injury hazard."

Early last month, a year and a half after that citation was penned in the inspector's ticket book, Jack Topletz was in court to defend it. A white-haired, avuncular sort in a madras plaid short-sleeved shirt and jeans, he had his straw-covered pith helmet on the oak bench next to him, along with an overstuffed briefcase sprouting receipts from a faucet-parts company.

He and his nephew, Dennis, had already noticed that the inspector who wrote the ticket had shown up for the court date. When city witnesses fail to appear, which happens often enough, it's easy to beat the ticket. The Topletzes were waiting for Trantham to arrive when a small group of prosecutors approached the bench.

"Case dismissed by request of department," the judge announced abruptly. "You can go."

Jack and Dennis didn't stick around to ask why. For some reason, the city wasn't going to try to make its case.

"We don't ask," said Jack, before limping down the steps of the soot-covered Municipal Building and heading across Commerce Street to his spotless Cadillac Fleetwood, trimmed all around in smart-looking chrome fenders.

Meanwhile, the S.A.F.E. team has been doing volume business at the same Alabama house. Inspectors have written 32 fire and code tickets there since the beginning of 1998. All are awaiting their day in court.

Who knows whether a single one is any good.
One thing is certain: It'll take more than a good bluffer to get something done against the Topletz clan. As their lawyer says, "You don't accumulate that much property being dumb."

Maneuvering around his desk on the top floor of the three-story 1960s-vintage office building the Topletz family owns on Inwood Road north of University Drive, Dennis Topletz points out a stack of paper 18 inches tall. "Those are citations we're working on now," he says.

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