A Revoltin' Development

Dade's shoddy builders beware: A new business regulation task force is looking to make some surprise visits

If this were a movie, the scene would be enshrouded in a haunting predawn fog, burning cigarettes the brightest source of light. The reality is that the sun is already up and the sky is clear. And nobody happens to be smoking. The atmosphere, however, is not without some Hollywood-style tension and bravado.

Nineteen men and two women have gathered in this municipal parking lot on Miami Beach. They are dressed in blue jeans and khakis, work boots and cross-trainers, the backs of their T-shirts and windbreakers emblazoned with acronyms: BPR, CMB, BCCO, MBBD. They are an interagency task force of building inspectors, business and labor investigators, and police officers representing the City of Miami Beach, Metro-Dade County, and the State of Florida. Their mission: to ferret out illegal construction activity.

"Okay, everybody, listen up," commands Oriol Torres, Metro-Dade code compliance officer and one of the coordinators of today's effort. The group pulls tighter around him. "The first site we're going to hit is 1620 Bay Rd. Put as many people as you can in a car." Torres's eyes narrow Charles Bronson-like against the morning sun. Safety, he warns, is paramount. "Don't stand near the building where something can 'accidentally' fall on you. Don't stand too close to an edge where someone can 'accidentally' push you off." Torres clarifies the objectives, the task force bundles into a half-dozen cars, and, with one police cruiser leading and a second tailing, the sweep begins.

This operation is the most recent of a series organized by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR). In the past year, similar task forces have conducted raids in Key West, in unincorporated Monroe County, in the City of Miami, and in the ritzy Cocoplum development in Coral Gables. The multipronged approach allows the team to uncover a wide range of construction violations, from subcode workmanship to violations of workers compensation laws to inadequate permitting to unlicensed contracting. The sweeps have also had the ancillary effect of flushing out non-construction-related illegalities, such as fugitives and illegal immigrants.

"We're just making sure the buildings are going up right," explains Bill Cates, supervisor of investigators for DBPR, as the convoy slides through the streets of the city. Cates says the sweeps help protect the safety of the the workers as well as the public. They also have an educational component: The threat of a bust might make shady contractors adhere more closely to the law. (To further that end, media have been invited along today: In addition to New Times, a reporter-and-cameraman tandem from WFOR-TV [Channel 4] is in tow.)

The task force pulls up at the first target, a partially completed thirteen-story luxury building called Bayview Plaza Condominium. Police lights flashing, the investigators tumble out of their cars, don hardhats, and fan out across the site. One team, led by Torres and Cates, heads straight for the construction trailer, where they corner a perplexed, sun-mottled old man: the foreman. Torres fires questions at him: "Where are the approved plans? Where are the permits? Who's your plumbing contractor? Who's your electrical contractor? Where's the fire sprinklers?" The investigators scour the paperwork the man produces and, using cellular phones, call back to their offices to check that the subcontractors are licensed.

Elsewhere on the site, other teams are looking to see if the legally required number of certified tradesmen are present, that apprentices aren't working unsupervised or without insurance, that the workmanship is adequate, and that all the work vehicles are properly marked and registered.

After about an hour, this part of the mission winds down. The team has uncovered four unlicensed work vehicles and a masonry crew whose employer is not obeying workers' compensation laws. The owners of the vehicles are fined $100 each; the masonry subcontractor is fined $1000. The most serious problems are subcode workmanship, including dangerously exposed steel rods and the lack of guard rails, fences, or harnesses to prevent falls from the upper floors. The Miami Beach building inspectors issue a stop-work order and force the foreman to clear the site until the problems are corrected.

After ensuring that all 40-odd workers are off the property, the squads get back into their cars and head toward target number two: the Tides, at 1220 Ocean Dr. This time the on-site project manager sees the investigators first, and he's not amused. A thick, mustachioed man in slacks and a tie, he barrels down the front stairs of the building and stomps over to Miami Beach building inspector Jeri Goodkin. "This is harassment to the umpth degree!" he snarls before storming back into the building, a cellular phone clamped to his ear. (Goodkin's boss, Buildings Department Director Philip Azan, explains that the project manager impeded Goodkin's investigation of the building during an inspection earlier this month and probably thought the task force's visit was a payback.)

Inside, the atmosphere is tense. The investigators follow their routine and, because of all their questioning and demands for paperwork, bring work to a halt. The project manager huffs around, sporadically barking into his phone. After several minutes one of the building's owners shows up. "There must be a better way of doing this," he insists to Azan. "This is the only way," Azan coolly replies.

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