By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Weston's tale, which has never been reported before, demonstrates how building, code, and fire officials had ample opportunity for graft. It also shows how, despite five years of allegations reported to police, the Inspector General's Office, state prosecutors, county auditors, and FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents, nothing has happened.
Yet New Times found ample evidence — from permit records to audits, insider testimony to arrests — that bolster Weston's claims. "They fired me to silence me, and they timed it to embarrass me," he says.
David Weston was destined to be a pain in someone's ass. His ancestors fought in the American Revolution. His dad was a military intelligence officer during World War II. Young David, who was born in 1950, inherited his old man's intellect and single-mindedness. When legislators threatened to cut funding for the student radio program at his high school near Philadelphia, he wrote an angry letter demanding it remain on the air. It didn't hurt that he let politicians think he was another David Weston: the then-president of ABC.
Weston attended the University of Miami to study engineering. In 1999, he joined Miami Beach Fire Rescue as a fire protection analyst. The job suited his obsessiveness. Weston drove around the island inspecting construction and renovation projects to ensure the plans were followed and that alarm and sprinkler systems worked. When he discovered problems — such as faulty doors that could turn a building into a towering inferno — he issued violations and withheld permits.
Weston was one of only five full-time fire protection analysts. But there were also about 30 fire inspectors, many of them firefighters such as Chai Footman, who moonlighted by checking nightclubs for overcrowding. Altogether, the fire prevention bureau was responsible for inspecting Miami Beach's thousand buildings once per year and levying millions in annual permit fees and fines.
In 2003, Sonia Machen was hired as the department's fire marshal in charge of inspections. She introduced computers equipped with a new, digital system called Permits Plus. It was designed so departments could share information and inspectors could raise permit costs as building costs increased.
The change came as Miami Beach enjoyed an unprecedented boom. Weston and his counterparts could hardly keep up with inspecting all the new high-rises pumping billions into the economy. "I started noticing that the building department wasn't doing a good job assessing fees on Permits Plus," he says. "Taxpayers were getting cheated out of millions."
Weston spent months inspecting renovations at the Fontainebleau, for instance. According to him, permit fees for the $1 billion remodeling should have totaled $25 million, or roughly 2.5 percent. Instead, contractors paid just under $2 million.
There were other undervalued projects. Once, Weston took the ferry to exclusive Fisher Island to inspect a 16-story building on the north shore. But the permitted cost was only $20 million. When he complained, his supervisors revalued it at $58 million, raising fees three-fold. The developer warned Weston not to return to the über-rich isle.
As with the Fontainebleau, the renovation of the Eden Roc hotel struck Weston as suspicious. Developers touted it as a $240 million project, but Permits Plus records listed only $51.56 million worth of construction between 2004 and 2010. That would have meant $188 million was spent on furnishings — a ridiculous $300,000 per room.
Weston suspected that someone with access to Permits Plus had deliberately undervalued each of those projects to save the developers millions in permit fees, perhaps in exchange for kickbacks.
But whenever Weston complained to Machen or her assistant Steve Phillips, they told him things were under control. Finally, in 2007, Weston broke the chain of command by going to Miami Beach internal auditor James Sutter and laying out his suspicions. "You know you'll probably be fired for this," Sutter said, according to Weston. (Sutter did not respond to requests for comment.)
By February 2008, Weston was so fed up he went directly to then-Chief Edward Del Favero and threatened to alert the cops. Before he had a chance, though, Miami Beach police arrested three building department employees on corruption charges. Planner Henry Johnson, plans examiner Mohammed Partovi, and inspector Andres Villarreal were caught accepting bribes stuffed inside toilet-paper rolls in return for fast-tracking a developer's plans.
Two days following the arrests, Weston was fired after an anonymous letter arrived claiming he'd started a company with a permit consultant named Damian Gallo against city policy.
Weston had indeed bought a 17 percent stake in a marina venture in which Gallo was also an investor. But Weston had asked the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission if the investment was OK and insists he also notified his superiors. Yet Machen wrote that the deal was "unacceptable" in Weston's termination letter.
"That wasn't really the reason why they fired me," Weston maintains. "They wanted me to look guilty, like I was part of the group [with Johnson, Partovi, and Villarreal]."
(Machen admits to New Times that soon after Weston left, Permits Plus was changed to standardize permit fee procedure.)
Weston had good reason to suspect that inspectors were taking cash to ignore permit fees. Two years earlier, electrical inspector Thomas Ratner had been busted for corruption. Then there were the arrests of Johnson, Partovi, and Villarreal.
jose smith the city attorney has been the the longest and perhaps he is the corruption problem in miami beach.
Take a look at the New MB Risk Manager from MDC omg she worked with Risk Mgr. Miguel Solomon who fired for setting up fake insurance claims. Now MB has this adjuster from MDC to help City Atty Jose Smith settle cases with out anyone looking at anything.. Super Job HR dept, and the want to be City Manager Kathie Brooks... Is anyone paying attention to what they are doing???Hello Inspector General all the dirt is buried in the Risk Mgt Dept and the City Attorneys Office. Oh I forgot that is not open to Public Records...
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