By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
This is the main reason I haven't been able to sell the house, this room here," Ardell Morton explains as she enters the master bathroom of her house at 168 NE 44th St. in Miami. It looks bombed out. Rough concrete reveals where a sink used to be. Wire from a light switch snakes from an unfinished wall. A tile soap holder has been snapped in half. "This used to be an antique bathroom in beautiful condition," she says. "Now look at it."
Morton's two-story house is in Buena Vista, a historic neighborhood north of Miami's Design District. She and her sister bought the home in 1993, just before she retired from the Miami Police Department, where she had been a lieutenant. She had hoped to sell the house some day and move to Scotland.
Then she tried to sell to Art Teele.
Teele is a Miami city commissioner. In late January he badly needed to move into the district from which voters had elected him this past November. Morton's house is in that district. By law, Teele needed to move in no later than February 1 of this year. In the hurried process of relocating, he may have not only damaged Morton's home but also abused his power as an elected official.
"Everybody was caught up in trying to help Teele because they knew time was running out," says Renee Menzel, a Buena Vista activist. "I made phone calls for Art and his wife to see properties. One of those calls was to Ardell. She was open to it, so I put her in contact with the commissioner."
Although Morton hadn't planned to leave her house until at least 1999, she agreed with Teele to a sale price of $210,000, according to documents in Morton's possession. In the interim between the signing of the offer and the closing, Morton accepted a temporary home swap. Teele and his wife took possession of the house on NE 44th Street; Morton and her sister moved into a Teele-owned apartment in the Venetia Condominium, just north of the Miami Herald building.
Teele secured a bank loan to buy the house. Unfortunately, he was short of the purchase price by $30,000. And also unfortunately, the U.S. Attorney's Office had begun investigating him in connection with an emerging scandal at the Port of Miami. Teele says he was forced to retain a criminal attorney. So he could buy the house, he asked Morton to grant him a second mortgage. Aware of the commissioner's famously high debt (his most recent financial disclosure form lists nearly $1.3 million in total liabilities), Morton balked. "I didn't think he would pay me," she recalls. "I felt if I gave him that second mortgage, I'd never see that money again."
Though Teele didn't have enough cash to complete the purchase, he proceeded with extensive remodeling. He and his wife installed new wool brocade carpet over the flagstone floor in front and back rooms. They carpeted the wood floor on the second story, which had suffered termite damage. They tore out the master bathroom, including the floor. They removed a door from a hall closet and sealed the entrance. They removed the ceiling from the downstairs bathroom, too. Outside, they installed scaffolding over a Japanese fish pond.
"Not only are these major renovations and structural changes being completed without the consent of the owner of the property," warned Morton's lawyer in a March 19 letter to Teele, "but they are also being performed without the proper permitting, thereby placing Ms. Morton in legal jeopardy."
When interviewed early this past week, Morton said she assumed Teele had never received the necessary permits.
"Of course I got permits!" huffed Teele during an interview in his Dinner Key office after the October 13 commission meeting. "I would be a fool not to get permits. I had the chief mechanical inspector for the city walk through the whole house. I had the head of building and zoning come out and inspect it. They said I didn't need a permit for work being done by a self-labor sort of thing. And you know what? I pulled the permits anyway. I pulled the permits to protect myself against exactly this kind of attack."
City records indicate that Teele qualified for a permit on March 26, a week after Morton's lawyer wrote the no-permit warning. He received one permit, for repairs. Records indicate he did not get a required second permit for plumbing.
Obtaining permits is time-consuming. Homeowners or contractors often begin queuing up at the city's Riverside Center as early as 6:00 a.m.; the process frequently takes all morning. Often applicants must return the next day.
Teele avoided this inconvenience. This past Friday zoning department employee Esther Saliva admitted to a supervisor that she had notarized Teele's application even though she had not witnessed the commissioner signing it. Such action violates Saliva's oath as a notary. Saliva alleged that building and zoning director Santiago Jorge-Ventura and Roberto Villanueva, the acting chief of the inspection services division, ordered her to notarize the application. "They told me they had seen Teele sign it and that I should go ahead and notarize it," Saliva told her supervisor.