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Gables Fire Inspector Says UM Ignored Warnings About Deadly Dorm Conditions

After a 17-year career in various city building departments, Ricardo Arnau landed a job as the chief mechanical officer for Coral Gables in October 2018. He seemed to be acclimating well to the new job — in the first six months, he says, he received two positive performance evaluations.

In April 2019, the city put Arnau in charge of inspecting a massive new student housing project at the University of Miami. But Arnau says that when he began making the rounds, he noticed multiple violations of the Florida Building Code, including fire hazards involving the dorms' clothes dryers and ducts. Nevertheless, he says, the university and contractor ignored his requests to make modifications — and Arnau claims Coral Gables City Manager Peter Iglesias pressured him to approve the building inspection anyway.

After months of refusing to back down, Arnau was fired in late September. Alleging he was ousted as revenge for his trying to ensure the safety of the hundreds of UM students expected to move into the building as soon as this fall, Arnau is suing the city for wrongful termination.

"On September 30, 2019, [Arnau] was wrongfully terminated in retaliation for his refusal to participate in what he believed to be illegal conduct when he refused to ignore blatant code and safety violations by one of the City's biggest influencers, the University of Miami," the lawsuit states. According to the complaint, the alleged code violations could "result in life-threatening danger to students."

Reached by New Times, the city declined to comment on Arnau's allegations. An attorney for Moss & Associates, the general contractor overseeing the project, Lakeside Village, also declined to comment.

The University of Miami maintains that the building will be safe for students.

"All projects at the University of Miami are compliant with national and state codes, including fire codes," spokesperson Peter E. Howard told New Times in an email.

Once completed, the $153 million project will house more than 1,100 sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The university touts that the building "offers a wide range of room layouts and modern finish levels, allowing students to select from a variety of living environments."

Arnau's suit describes how he discovered a multitude of problems inside the building, beginning last April when he told the contractor that the dryer ducts were not being installed in compliance with state code. Arnau claims that he offered at least three solutions to fix the issue but that Moss & Associates continued its out-of-compliance work.

In June, Arnau blew the whistle on another potential hazard when he noticed the contractor installing only one layer of FyreWrap — a fire-protection wrap for ducts — despite instructions from the manufacturer stating two layers were required for full protection.

Arnau's attorney, Andres Fernandez, tells New Times it's unclear why Moss pushed back against installing a second layer.

"That was the curious aspect of it — it was just a refusal to do what the manufacturer requirements were," the lawyer says. "I can only conceive that it was a monetary issue."

In July, Arnau issued a stop-work order citing the issue with the FyreWrap. He alleges that in subsequent meetings with Iglesias, the Coral Gables city manager pressured him to rubberstamp the building inspection — even after multiple city building officials and an outside engineering consultant agreed with Arnau's assessment.

"The City Manager argued against the need for a second layer of FyreWrap despite his lack of expertise," the lawsuit states.

After weeks of meetings, a city building official overrode Arnau's decision and approved the single-layer FyreWrap installation, the suit alleges.

Fernandez says he and Arnau believe Iglesias caved under pressure from administrators at the university. He contrasts what happened at UM with what was required of the Paseo de la Riviera mixed-use development, another project Arnau inspected. In that case, he says, the city made the developer install a second layer of FyreWrap.

"Here it was a different story," Fernandez says of the UM project. "I think it's pretty self-evident that a large portion of Coral Gables is the University of Miami. It's a powerhouse within our community."

The city has yet to respond to Arnau's complaint in Miami-Dade circuit court, and City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos says Coral Gables has not yet been served with the lawsuit.

Arnau is seeking back wages, attorney's fees, and reinstatement of his job.

Fernandez says Arnau was simply trying to do right by future residents of the housing complex.

"Any person worth their weight in salt would stand their ground and say, 'No, this is not safe.' We'd all expect all engineers to stand their ground and build it safely, especially if it's going to be housing for students," the attorney says. "There are individuals within our community who take their profession seriously and try to do the right thing. Unfortunately, politics gets in the way and taints what's right and what's wrong in our society."

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