Fifteen of New York City's 24 plumbing inspectors -- 70 percent of the staff -- were charged June 25 with extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars to approve projects around the city. Among those charged were the top inspector; the top supervisors in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx; three former plumbing inspectors; and a former boiler inspector.

Papers filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn charge that the inspectors routinely extorted cash bribes of $50 to $500 in exchange for approvals of plumbing work on commercial construction projects and home renovations, according to The New York Times. Prosecutors said that over the last 10 years the men took hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs from contractors.

In many cases the inspectors approved plumbing work in exchange for cash without performing any inspections, The Times reported. One approved two projects over coffee at a doughnut shop, while another approved work left undone in an abandoned home that had been boarded up. Others performed inspections but were paid to overlook minor violations.

The charges stemmed from a two-year investigation of the NYC Department of Investigation, which enlisted the help of a contractor, the owner of a Queens plumbing business, The Times said. He secretly recorded more than 100 hours of conversations with 14 of the inspectors and made 69 payments totaling $9,000.

According to complaints filed in the case, contractors told authorities that bribes were a part of doing business, reported The Associated Press.

If convicted, each defendant would face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

This is not the first time NYC plumbing inspectors have been charged with extortion. In 1993, 23 of the 32 city plumbing inspectors were arrested, said Stewart D. O'Brien, executive director and legal counsel of The Plumbing Foundation City of New York Inc.

"There used to be 24 inspectors just for Manhattan," he said. "Now there are 24 inspectors for the whole city."

O'Brien told PM that he had met with the city buildings department to establish a short-term plan to train building inspectors to help cover the 150-200 plumbing inspections that occur each day. The city may also contract some inspections out.

A long-term solution involves using legislation passed in 1993 allowing the Buildings Department to establish a not-for-profit corporation, and then contract with itself to perform the plumbing inspection needs of the city.

"We believe it's a pretty good idea," O'Brien explained. "This way, the plumbing permit fees will be used for plumbing projects, not just dumped into a general fund."