Current News

/

ArcaMax

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

MIAMI — Surfside police opened an investigation after building records potentially holding clues about the Champlain Towers South collapse appeared to go missing from the town’s rented storage facility, according to a police report obtained by the Miami Herald.

Police focused their inquiry on former building official Ross Prieto, who was criticized in the wake of the collapse after records showed he told residents the building was in good shape in 2018, despite reviewing an engineering report detailing major structural damage.

Prieto “may have recently entered the storage facility where the town stores building records,” investigators wrote in the report. The document provides no details on which specific records went missing from storage or why Prieto was listed as the sole subject of the investigation. As of July 8, investigators had interviewed at least nine town officials, but not Prieto himself.

Prieto did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment.

Surfside Police Chief Julio Yero told the Herald on Thursday that Prieto came under suspicion because he had access to the storage units in Sunny Isles Beach, which were still listed under his name despite his leaving the town’s staff. But Yero said there was “no specific indication that he did go there inappropriately whatsoever.”

Details of the investigation — including summaries of the interviews with town officials — were contained in two draft word processing documents attached to July 8 emails from Detective Andres Mendoza and Detective Sgt. Marian Cruz, obtained as part of a records request by the Herald. One draft was labeled “with corrections” and featured a few highlighted additions.

The draft reports listed the investigation as “inactive” on July 8, implying that all documents related to the investigation should be publicly available under Florida law. On Thursday, the town refused to provide the finalized report and other documents in the case file, saying that the investigation was still active.

Yero, the police chief, told the Herald the draft had “a lot of mistakes” and that “the term inactive is not correct.” He said detectives are still reviewing surveillance footage from the storage facility.

“You really have to pretend you didn’t see that, because it’s a work in progress,” Yero said, referring to the six-page report. He added, “You have a document that is almost writing a disposition, when we’re not done with the case.”

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett told the Herald on Thursday morning that he wasn’t aware of the investigation. But Eliana Salzhauer, a town commissioner, said town officials informed her within a couple days of the collapse that there were concerns about who had been at the storage facility.

“They said it’s a mess,” Salzhauer said. “The papers were just not all neat and organized the way you would want them to be.”

Building department records are important for investigators who rely on structural drawings to look for design defects and permits, inspections and other documents that might point to a history of problems.

Salzhauer also questioned why the investigation has not yet been concluded, and why it wasn’t turned over to an outside agency.

“In a small town like this, I think it’s pretty clear that an outside agency needs to conduct investigations” related to town officials, she said.

A spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Police Department, which has an open death investigation into the collapse, said they were not investigating whether Prieto may have entered the storage facility that housed the condo records.

“That’s not our investigation. That’s strictly Surfside,” said Miami-Dade Police Lt. Carlos Rosario. “We are not looking into that.”

Rosario confirmed that Surfside police had reached out to the county about the investigation but said the county had no interest in the case or the storage facility.

“People going into a storage facility where they keep records, that’s their investigation,” Rosario said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is not participating in the investigation either, department spokesperson Dana Kelly told the Herald.

 

After hearing about the collapse on June 24, Surfside officials began a haphazard process of collecting all town records regarding the building’s original construction, renovations and records about recent inspections. Building clerk Rony Jean and part-time chief mechanical inspector Jan Pierre Perez were sent to the storage locker around 11 a.m., according to the police report.

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.

———

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

———

©2021 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.