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.

This investigation is quicker than the first -- about 40 minutes -- and the task force uncovers only two problems: a sprinkler subcontractor who might not be properly registered with the state, and an unregistered work truck.

The third target is another luxury condominium complex, this one at 1677 Collins Ave. As the lead car pulls up to the building the foreman is standing at the curbside, like a doorman. He couldn't be nicer. An investigator explains the task force's purpose. "Fine, fine," the foreman chirps. "Come on in!" The contractor and all the subcontractors have their papers and permits ready. A 35-minute walk-through turns up nothing.

Then the truth leaks out: The owners have been tipped off. A police officer working off-duty security in front of the building says word of the task force's impending arrival had circulated an hour earlier. Everybody was scurrying around, assembling their required documents, putting on their mandatory hardhats.

Returning to his car, Cates is enraged. He suspects the source of the leak was a member of the task force. "If I find out who tipped them off," he seethes, "I swear to God I'll file criminal charges." Torres acknowledges, however, that someone at one of the two earlier sites could have sent out the word to friends or colleagues at other Beach construction sites. "It's probably spreading like wildfire," he says.

The next raid, at a cluster of three buildings farther north on Collins, is hampered not by a leak or by hostile foremen but by lunch. Almost all the workers are on break. Still, Beach inspectors discover that construction is ongoing at a building already hit with a stop-work order; violating the order is an arrestable misdemeanor. The investigators clear the site and press on to the final destination, Seacoast Towers, at 5151 Collins Ave.

First, though, Torres mounts a stoop and addresses his flagging troops. "This job we're going to might be a very hazardous job," he cautions. "They have a tendency to be very violent on this site. Stay in pairs. Let's try to secure the outside so no one gets out. Let's lock it down!"

But Torres's warning is unnecessary. The building's management is cordial and accommodating, and the contractor is far from hostile. While Cates and Torres lead a team to the construction trailers to check paperwork, other investigators split up in groups and travel to different floors. In one unit they discover sloppy wire and duct work, as well as poorly installed windows. They also come across four electrical laborers working without the supervision of a licensed journeyman. Several inspectors will make a return visit the next day to review the workmanship more thoroughly and inspect the contractor's files more carefully. Before leaving, they slap the electrical subcontractor with a $500 fine for failing to supervise his workers, and fines of $200 each for the laborers.

Azan is clearly frustrated by an industry constantly in flux, the squirrely nature of some people in the construction business, and the difficulty of regulating them. "We see so much activity going on out there," he says shaking his head, "and not enough enforcement to keep up with it."

Back at the staging area in the Michigan Avenue parking lot, the weary task force tallies its accomplishments: seven sites, more than 40 license checks, eight code-compliance citations, six pending follow-up investigations into subcode construction and unapproved building plans, five workers compensation violations, five citations for unlicensed or unmarked commercial vehicles, and two stop-work orders.

Left off the inventory: one suspected information leak..

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