By Rachel Chason and Lynh Bui
Haitham A. Hijazi, head of the Prince George’s County permitting department that is being investigated as part of a broadening probe of construction flaws at MGM National Harbor, submitted his retirement Monday.
Hijazi is leaving the Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement, a spokesman for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) confirmed. Hijazi, who has led the department since 2013, sent a retirement notice to Baker’s office, spokesman Scott Peterson said.
Hijazi’s department issued the permits and approvals for the MGM facilities, where a child was severely shocked in June when she was swinging on a lighted handrail.
Two county officials familiar with the matter said Hijazi retired to avoid termination from his job, which was a $210,000-a-year post.
Hijazi’s official retirement date is Nov. 30, and he will use his annual leave until then, Peterson said. Nicholas A. Majett, Prince George’s chief administrative officer, will assume Hijazi’s duties until Dec. 3, when the next county executive will be sworn in.
The FBI is assisting Prince George’s police in the probe of the resort site, which will look at the possibility of public corruption, and whether corners were cut to speed up the opening of the $1.4 billion project.
An independent engineer hired by the county released a report describing the wiring feeding the handrail as “terrible” and some of the “sloppiest work” he has ever seen.
Hijazi had said he felt “betrayed” by the electrical contractor and a third-party inspector but described the MGM problems at the siteas limited and said there is no “imminent danger” at the property.
Hijazi could not be immediately reached for comment about his retirement.
Hijazi has spent more than two decades in county government and was one of two department heads that Baker retained from the administration of his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson, who served more than five ye ars in prison after pleading guilty to evidence tampering and destruction of evidence in a broad corruption scheme.
When Baker was deciding who to keep from Johnson’s administration, he said that he repeatedly heard, “Keep Haitham.”
In 2013, he tapped Hijazi, a Syrian-born civil engineer who spent a decade as head of the county’s $22 million public works and transportation department, to take charge of the new Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement. Baker said he hoped the new department would “go down as a signature initiative.”
Hijazi oversaw the overhaul of the permitting and inspection process, following years of complaints that it was too bureaucratic and not business friendly for a county that wanted to grow economically.
M.H. Jim Estepp, president and chief executive of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, said the business community “has been pleased” with changes made by Hijazi, whom he described as “one of the most professional and competent individuals I have known in government.”
Former council member David C. Harrington, president and chief executive of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce said Hijazi has always been accessible, personally calling him back when he raised concerns from business owners or constituents.
“There are still hurdles . . . but there is a perception now that the county is open for business,” Harrington said.
Hijazi’s retirement comes less than two weeks after county officials announced that they would be working with the FBI to expand their investigation into how the 6-year-old was gravely injured.
The girl was swinging on a lighted handrail near the fountain area of the resort along the banks of the Potomac River on June 26. The handrail and the wiring to the handrail were improperly installed along with a device that controls the voltage to the lights, according to findings from an independent engineer the county hired to review the incident. The faulty installation combined with other problems jolted 120 volts through the girl, 10 times what the power that should have been flowing to the lights.
The engineer’s findings confirmed a preliminary assessment obtained by The Washington Post that indicated the faulty electrical work represented “major” code violations that should not have passed the permitting and inspection process.
The preliminary assessment and the engineer said the wrong type of wiring was used to power the lights on the handrail and that the handrail was installed at a shallow depth and became wobbly. The loose handrail then frayed protective coatings on the wiring, and exposed bare wiring made contact with the metal railing, the engineering review found.
The child was severely shocked after grabbing the handrail to swing on it and then swinging her legs onto another nearby metal rail, completing the electrical circuit.
Hijazi said last month that he had ordered all electrical systems at MGM National Harbor to be audited in the next year. He also said the county took “disciplinary actions” against the electrical contractor and the third-party inspector who approved the work, but he would not offer details of what the discipline entailed.
Hijazi said he welcomed any investigation and was confident in how his office handled the process. “This is my home,” Hijazi said in an interview last month. “You never destroy your home.”
The third-party electrical inspector has told officials that he reluctantly accepted work that didn’t comply with code because he felt pressure to do so from other construction entities, according to a court document reviewed by The Post. An attorney for the inspector said his client was “by the book” and “safety conscious” and did not inspect the specific railing on which the child was injured. The entities were not named in the document.
No charges or violations have been filed against anyone or any company in the continuing investigation.
Via Washington Post