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Surfside investigated ex-building official after tower records went missing, emails show

Aaron Leibowitz, Ben Conarck and Sarah Blaskey, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

On the way, Pierre Perez called Prieto, the former building official, to ask where he might find the records for Champlain Towers, investigators wrote in the report. Prieto gave him the location of two boxes, Pierre Perez told investigators.

Pierre Perez found the first box, but the second was not where Prieto told him to look, he told police. Later, Prieto told Pierre Perez that “the second box was in the building department at the request of the town manager because of the construction of the building next door,” according to the report.

While searching for the building plans, Pierre Perez told investigators he found two sheets, “rolled up on their own, with no other records attached to them” and no name, that appeared to be “ground floor column plans” for Champlain Towers South. He put them in the box with the other records, he told investigators.

Jean, the building clerk, brought the single box of paper records — “mainly big plans” — back to the building department, according to the emails. But there should have been more documents than that, according to two other staffers who worked in the building department.

Pierre Perez did not immediately respond to the Herald’s request for comment.

Town officials met on June 29, and discussed the missing records. There, the town records clerk noted that “approximately 20 years of records ... appeared to be missing.” In response, the town’s hired public relations consultant, Brian Andrews, advised the town manager to involve the police.

It’s unclear from the draft report whether town officials ever located the documents they believed to be missing. Staff later found electronic copies of the certificate of occupancy and other permits, which had been scanned on March 11, 2019, police noted.

Since the collapse, Surfside has published dozens of documents related to Champlain Towers including building plans from 1979 to 2020. There is no obvious 20-year gap. But the records were disorganized and, in some cases, appeared to be missing critical pages. The 336-page document of original drawings and building plans was uploaded to the town’s records portal in complete disarray.

Undated plans and a “job copy” of architectural plans appeared to be shuffled in with structural drawings originally dated Aug. 22, 1979. Also in the mix were plans for Champlain Towers North, which in some cases appeared to have been mislabeled as being for the nearly identical building one block south. The first page of the structural drawings was missing entirely — a fact noted by investigators in their draft report.

 

Under Prieto, the building department was put under administrative review by the town manager for disorganization.

Surfside officials have pushed since as early as 2014 for the building department to digitize its records. But the process has been slow and halting. The building department’s outdated record-keeping system prompted a former town manager, Guillermo Olmedillo, to advocate in recent years for most of the department’s functions to be outsourced to the county.

James McGuinness, the town’s current building official, told the Herald on Wednesday that he doesn’t expect officials to find more documents from the original design and construction. Still, McGuinness said it is possible they might find some as they go through all of the boxes in the storage units.

“We are actively digitizing plans like crazy for all buildings in Surfside and putting them up on the cloud,” he said.

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(Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.)

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