Monroe Cotton Mill operates without inspections

The State Fire Marshal is vowing to investigate how a huge antique mall in Monroe was allowed to open and operate for years without the written state fire marshal inspections required by law. Some say preferential treatment for a politically-connected owner is the reason. It's a charge the owner denies. Senior FOX 5 I-Team reporter Dale Russell has the exclusive report.

Walk into the historic Monroe Cotton Mills and you will find anything and everything an antique hunter would treasure.  But, it's harder to find an answer to this question: how did this mall open and operate for five years without the required government approval?

Attorney Paul Rosenthal bought the building in 2008 with plans to turn it into an antique mall. Georgia's Fire Protection and Safety laws say a business can't open until a fire inspector deems it safe for the public and gives the owner a certificate of occupancy. That didn't happen here. Rosenthal admits he had no C.O., but insists the building was safe and that the state fire inspector gave him a verbal go ahead to let the public in.

He says around 2012 a new state fire inspector showed up and told him what fire safety issues needed to be fixed. When we asked the state for the records, they told us there were none.

It's a different story for Ian Henderson who runs a competing antique mall down the street. In 2012, this same fire inspector rigorously inspected Ian's property issuing six different reports over a 3-month period requiring the owner to add two exit doors, build a ramp for wheelchairs and add handrails before letting him open to the public.

Henderson told us, "I feel maybe he's being held to a different standard in Monroe, because of his powerful positions." He says the fact that Paul Rosenthal is the city attorney for Monroe got him special treatment. But State Fire Marshal Dwayne Garriss says that's not the case.  "We don't treat anybody differently. Doesn't matter who you are. Fire has no discrimination at all."

Garriss says his area fire inspector claims he didn't know the Monroe Cotton Mills had an antique mall until 2014 when he stumbled onto it while shopping. So five years after the mall opened, the state started inspecting and started finding safety deficiencies including "electrical circuits over loaded," no "required Fire alarm System". The inspector ordered the owner to add "2 new exits" and required "a fire watch" until the fire alarm is installed.

Paul Rosenthal fixed all the problems cited in the inspection report. Shortly before our story aired and five years after opening, he finally got his state certificate saying he could operate.