If I Had a Hammer

The South Florida construction industry has been hit hard by the recession, and general contractors like Louis Forti have been happy to take on virtually any work that comes their way. So Forti, president of his own company - Forti Engineering Systems - jumped at the chance to bid on a home-remodeling project early last year. It wasn't going to be the sort of job that would make him rich, but under the circumstances, it wasn't something he could afford to turn down. And it also held the prospect of future referral work in one area of Dade County seemingly insulated from the vagaries of the economy: the wealthy residential neighborhoods of Coral Gables.

A year and a half later, Forti's opportunity has become his downfall. The remodeling of a doctor's home in the exclusive Cocoplum enclave remains unfinished and tangled in legal battles. Forti's business is a shambles, he's collecting unemployment, and has resorted to selling his truck to raise cash. Worse yet, Coral Gables has banned him from doing business as a contractor anywhere in the city. "This is a living nightmare," says Forti, who has worked in the Miami area for 23 years as an engineer, contractor, surveyor, and real estate broker. "I've pretty much shut down operations because of this. We're so involved getting this resolved, we can't actively pursue work. In effect, it has destroyed my motivation."

In February 1990, a more optimistic Forti had negotiated a $93,660 proposal to build additions to the modern one-story home belonging to a plastic surgeon and his wife, Dr. Salvador and Carmen O'Neill. Forti and a crew of builders soon began work. "We now had entree into an upscale market," explains Forti, who at the time was also completing construction of an office building in the Gables. "We were hoping to use the O'Neills as a reference and secure other work in Coral Gables that way."

But Forti's hopes began to falter several months into the Cocoplum project when the O'Neills, questioning the quality of Forti's work, hired an architect to oversee the construction. The architect "produced a [correction] list seven pages long and included many items the O'Neills had told us they were previously satisfied with," Forti says. Then, due to a contractual disagreement, the O'Neills withheld payments to Forti, who walked off the site last October amid a tempest of meetings and correspondence. The front addition was nearly completed but the rear renovation was only half finished.

Unable to repair the rift, Forti this past March filed a lien against the property for $26,000 he claimed he is owed. The O'Neills contested the lien, and the dispute is pending in circuit court. (Neither the O'Neills nor their attorneys would comment for this story.)

With their house in a suspended state of concrete and plaster, the O'Neills turned to a local authority for some respite. They filed a complaint with the Coral Gables Construction Regulation Board - a city-appointed, five-member committee - and charged Forti with abandoning the project, deviating from the blueprints, failing to act on the corrections list, doing substandard work, and other alleged misdeeds.

Forti was called before the board for two lengthy hearings and an on-site inspection of the construction project. This past June, at the end of the final hearing, the board members referred the case to the state Department of Professional Regulation for review. (DPR has the power to revoke a contractor's license to conduct business.) Board members then handed Forti the stiffest punishment available in their arsenal of penalties - they prohibited him from obtaining the required city permits that would allow him to work in Coral Gables. He was blackballed.

The ruling was the first blemish on Forti's 39-year career in construction and engineering. "It surprised me because I was under the impression that, based on the discussions and on the evidence presented, we would be exonerated," says Forti. "I also thought I had a lot of ties to the community, having been the president of the Coral Gables Lions Club."

If reputation apparently didn't count for much in the board's decision, neither, according to Forti, did standard legal procedure. "The proceedings of the board fell well below minimal standards of due process of law," wrote Forti's lawyer, Dirk Lorenzen, in a circuit court appeal of the construction board's decision. (This appeal, filed in July, is distinct from Forti's complaint involving the liens.) Among several objections, Forti complained that the board did not require witnesses to swear to the truthfulness of their testimony. In addition, Forti noted that only one of the three board members who ultimately voted on the matter was present at all phases of the proceedings. ®MDNM¯ And Forti objected to the behavior of one particular board member.

Forti claims that Edward Weller was biased and "contaminated the proceedings." Weller acknowledged in a document filed with the regulation board that he is "both a friend of the O'Neills and a general contractor, and as such may end up working with them to help them finish their construction project." For that reason Weller officially removed himself from the board's deliberations. But Forti says Weller muttered advice to the O'Neills' attorneys during the first hearing on May 16; and at the May 31 on-site inspection he chatted with other board members and "pointed out, both directly and through intermediaries, matters which he felt should come to the attention of the remainder of the board."

The inspection, which Forti's attorney describes as a "three-ring circus," included board members, city inspectors and other officials, lawyers, contractors, Forti, and the O'Neills. Weller admits he spoke with board members at the site but denies he discussed the Forti case. "There was conversation, but it had nothing to do with the project," he insists. "I hadn't seen some of them for a while, so they asked me how it was going." Weller also says he provided the O'Neills with referrals and some opinions before the hearings, but never pursued a bid for the project. However, he adds that "it's a possibility at some point in time that [the O'Neills] may come back and want me to help them further."

One of the main complaints against Forti was the quality of his work. According to his accusers, it was not up to Coral Gables's standards - despite the fact that city building inspectors had periodically examined and approved the construction as it progressed. "I found the workmanship horrible, it was very shoddy," says board co-chair Richard Schuster. "Of course, it wasn't finished, but it seemed like the people working on the job weren't well supervised." But Schuster, an architect, admits he missed the board's on-site inspection and made his evaluation of the workmanship solely from photographs and written documentation.

While the O'Neills' home remains uncompleted, Forti's own house is in disrepair as he struggles to regain his right to build in Coral Gables. "I've even resigned from the Lions Club because I don't feel the motivation to participate in civic activities," he says dispiritedly. But even if he wins the legal battles and is cleared by state authorities, Forti worries that his reputation has suffered permanently. "It's almost an impossible burden to overcome now because I've been accused," he says. "I can never say I've never had a complaint against me.

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