Photo: Typical Sharron Lewis Miami Style by Elizabeth Calomiris
GETTING AHEAD OF THE JOB CON AT THE CONTINUUM
July 2, 2012
David Arthur Walters
The Miami Mirror
The scheme is simple: go in small and come out big. That is what unlicensed general contractor Jihad Doujeiji dba Sharron Lewis Design Central did in 3,000 sq. ft. condominium Unit 2602 at the famous South Beach Continuum at 50 South Pointe Drive.
Mr. Doujeiji presented himself as a general contractor to the owner, contracted to renovate the apartment, and had him sign, under penalties of perjury, a blank permit application on June 22, 2011, in effect affirming nothing at all, which is a standard procedure declared to be appropriate by City of Miami Beach Assistant City Attorney Rhonda Montoya Hasan. Mr. Doujeiji then had a permit fixer or “expeditor” line up a licensed specialty flooring contractor to sign the application on August 29, 2011. It is believed that the flooring contractor did not lay or supervise the laying of the floor, and that his end of the deal was supplying the materials. Absent the help of a permit fixer or “expeditor,” obtaining a permit from the City of Miami Beach may take two or more months. The permit fixer filed the application on August 30 and it was approved that day.
The total value of the flooring work stated to the City of Miami Beach was only $20,100, yet an $80,000 deposit was made in July 2011 to Sharron Lewis Design for the flooring work only. The billing date for the flooring, completed in 2011, was subsequently changed to March 1, 2012, allegedly for revenue recognition purposes, perhaps to delay the payment of taxes. The actual value of all construction including the flooring was $250,000. Furnishings were additional.
Jihad Doujeiji was husband to the late Sharron Lewis, an interior designer and furniture manufacturer famed for her ‘Miami Style’. They were involved in the design and construction of South Beach restaurants, which is perhaps how they met. Companions for nearly ten years, they married about a year before her death. She had obtained a general contracting license for herself and Sharron Lewis Design Central, in effect legalizing Mr. Doujeiji’s contracting activities since he then worked under her supervision. Shortly before her death from cancer in March 2011, she hired residential interior designer and artist Elizabeth Calomiris, formerly of Washington, D.C., to carry on her design work at Sharron Lewis Design Central, located in downtown Miami, beside Ms. Lewis’ longtime designer and buyer, Jorge Hernandez, and other talented staff.
Mr. Doujeiji, a native of Lebanon who ventured to Greece and made his fortune in the drywall business before immigrating to the United States, owns with his brothers nearly 200 apartments in the Miami area, which provide their enterprises with a considerable flow of hard currency. He has had several encounters with regulators involving his construction activities, but few if any troubles with property owners. In fact, he is known for hiring talented construction workers, many of them illegal aliens, as is the tradition in Miami-Dade County, and for doing excellent work, the main complaint from owners being over scheduling and pricing. His furniture factory and office workers, on the other hand, have complained about his management style and methods of payment, and the Labor Department was successful in one suit against him. Current staff at Sharron Lewis Design Central refuses to answer questions about his contracting activities and license status, referring inquirers to “the manager and owner, Jihad.” He, in turn, has not responded to questions at this writing.
He failed to notify the Contractors Licensing Board of his wife’s death, and continued to present himself as “Jihad Doujeiji, Sharron Lewis Design Central, Construction Division, Lic# CGC 1507095.” An anonymous complaint was filed against him for unlicensed contracting, for which he was cited, yet he continued as before; he is spiritually inclined, and allegedly believes that his late wife’s spirit if not her license is watching over him. He is obviously qualified by his experience. Difficulties with the English language is not be an impediment for obtaining a contracting license in Florida since the exam can be taken orally, but the ability to think abstractly, curtailed by long years of concrete thinking on construction jobs, may be problematic to an old hand.
Although practicing construction without a license can be a crime in Florida, the second offense being a felony, that sort of prosecution is very rare indeed, the civil remedy usually being pursued, the consequence being a small fine referred to as a “traffic ticket.” What is a thousand-dollar or even a ten-thousand-dollar fine compared to millions in revenue?
But the absence of a license is really beside the point here: the Getting Ahead of the Job Con can be successfully played, and even better played, by licensed contractors, although they will still have to pay high fees to permit fixers to get preferential treatment from city officials: the major Miami Beach expeditor is known as Permit Doctors, which maintains an office on city property next to City Hall, a facility that is a virtually an annex of the Building Department,. However, Mr. Doujeiji has reasons to prefer Orestes “Rusty” Innocenti aka Rusty At The Copy Shop.
All of the new luxury condominiums, although “builder-ready” could use some work. For example, people with the means to inhabit them do not want to live on carpets on concrete floors or on crappy floor covering provided by builders who know upscale people like to do their own flooring. And if you are a speculator, a thorough “staging” according to the design of people like Sharron Lewis and Elizabeth Calomiris can net you an additional million dollars in short order, as we shall show elsewhere. So the most common permit pulled in a condominium tower is the flooring permit. Get one of those to get your foot in the door, and then rapidly build out the empty space, saving the permit fees for the additional work, work that the inspectors may not notice if the inspectors are managed properly, for they will be looking at the floor.
If tagged, just say, “Look, I was just getting ahead of the job, everybody does it,” the only consequence for the attempted grand theft of permit fees that the city is entitled to, as advertised by official publicity, will be a double-permit fee on the additional work, and that might be waived by your friends at the Building Department, perhaps with the help of your friendly expeditor. What a deal! One might be arrested for criminal fraud in other fields of endeavor, but construction is a world of its own: “It’s the culture, stupid.”
The Miami Mirror has reason to believe and intends to argue from statistics that the City of Miami Beach failed to collect millions of dollars in permit fees during the building boom, much of that due to the negligence and incompetence of the city government including the city manager, the city attorney, officials at the building department, and the city commission. Not to mention corruption.
The Miami Mirror suggested to Antonio Gonzalez, Operations Manager of the Building Department, that the owners of 50 South Pointe Drive be contacted to identify the de facto general contractor they were dealing with and to ascertain the scope of the work actually done. He advised on April 11 that, “The permit was applied for on 8/30/2011 and approved on the same day. The permit is currently expired awaiting a final inspection. A sub-permit (BP111937) was secured to remove and reinstall a toilet and allow the flooring installation. The latter received a Final Inspection approval on 10/06/2011.”
But his boss, Director Stephen Scott, subsequently said, on April 30, that no inspection is warranted when a permit was expired: “The permit expired on April 29, 2012 as per the Florida Building Code which states ‘Every permit issued shall become invalid unless the work authorized by such permit is commenced within six months after its issuance, or if the work authorized by such permit is suspended or abandoned for a period of six months after the time the work is commenced.’ Since there is no longer an active permit, no inspections may be scheduled.”
God only knows how Mr. Gonzalez knew when the work was suspend or abandoned, because it may have been ongoing when he issued his pragma. Inasmuch as blank permit applications are sworn to and filled in as needed, and plans are approved on their face value; inasmuch as no certificates of completion are required; inasmuch as inspectors have to be called in to make an inspection;—it appears that permitting in the City of Miami Beach is done on a honor basis. It would be far simpler and less expensive then to just sell permits at the permit window and trust people to do the right thing.
Interestingly, if the City officials had bothered to contact the owners when first asked to confirm the information the Miami Mirror had obtained from the public records, they might have saved themselves tens of thousands of dollars, because unlicensed contractors do not have to be paid and cannot place liens. But that would have been an unethical thing to do, unless there were some costs associated with the conduct that could be deducted from any balance due.
The Miami Mirror shall soon show how Mr. Doujeiji has contracted other jobs, and is continuing to contract, with the help of his permit fixer, without a general contracting license, right under the noses of state, county, and municipal authorities, who are fully aware of his activities by now, and other examples of the Getting Ahead of The Job Con will also be exposed.