Miami Herald

Surfside investigat­ed ex-official after records went missing

Records related to Champlain Towers South were seemingly missing after the building fell. An investigat­ion was launched centering on a former building official for Surfside.

- BY AARON LEIBOWITZ, BEN CONARCK AND SARAH BLASKEY aleibowitz@miamiheral­d.com bconarck@miamiheral­d.com sblaskey@miamiheral­d.com

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 units, 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.

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

Surfside Police Chief Julio Yero told the

Herald on Thursday that Prieto came under suspicion because he had access to the storage units, 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.”

The units are in Sunny Isles Beach.

Details of the investigat­ion — including summaries of the interviews with town officials — were contained in two draft wordproces­sing documents attached to July 8 emails from Detective Andres Mendoza and Detective Sergeant 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 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 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, 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 the agency was not investigat­ing whether Prieto 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 units 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 comments.

Town officials met on June 29 and discussed the missing records. The town’s records clerk noted that “approximat­ely 20 years of records … appeared to be missing.” In response, the town’s 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 that 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. 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.

 ?? MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiheral­d.com ?? Champlain Towers South partially collapsed in Surfside on June 24.
MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiheral­d.com Champlain Towers South partially collapsed in Surfside on June 24.
 ??  ?? Ross Prieto
Ross Prieto

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