8 August 2012
By David Arthur Walters
THE MIAMI MIRROR
MIAMI BEACH—Miami Beach City Attorney Jose Smith refused to provide journalist David Arthur Walters with public records and explain why his first assistant, Steven Rothstein, had ordered the Special Master to dismiss Special Master Case No. BV09001224 that the city had brought against Margret Asgeirsdottir, the owner of a luxury condominium 801 at The Continuum, for allowing construction on her apartment to proceed without a permit. The dismissal cost the city $26,741 in fines, a sum that would have been small change to Margret Asgeirsdottir and her husband Skuli Mogensen.
Mr. Smith responded to our journalist’s several requests with: “And you call yourself a ‘journalist’?” “My office will not provide you with a tutorial on due process, service of process or constitutional law. Get your own lawyer!” He also said he would walk him over to the F.B.I.
The activities of the unlicensed de facto general contractor involved, Jihad Doujeiji, who was then doing business as Sharron Lewis Design Central because his companion, the late Sharron Lewis, had her general contractor’s license registered with that firm, has been the subject of our investigative series ‘Getting Ahead of The Job Con.’ We have called him a “rogue” contractor, but he claims that he does what almost every contractor does, “get ahead of jobs,” and we tend to believe him given the processes of the Building Department reviewed by the City Attorney’s Office. Indeed, we believe lost permit fees run into the many millions of dollars.
We discovered that Mr. Doujeiji, at about the time of Ms. Lewis’ death, completed construction of a luxury condominium unit at Icon 1801 without a permit. He then lined up a flooring contractor’s license to piggyback on at Condominium 2602 at the Continuum, laying down the floor with his crew and then building out the apartment without pulling the necessary permits for the additional construction. His handy permit fixer, Orestes “Trusty Rusty” Innocenti, got a general contractor to sign onto a permit for the demolition of an imaginary bathroom and kitchen in a void penthouse TS3 at Sunset Harbour, and Mr. Doujeiji’s crew had constructed nearly $400,000 of improvements before our persistence with the Building Department finally caused a stop work order to be issued. We went to downtown Miami to investigate the contractor, and discovered that he was renovating an office and apartment building for a limited liability company in which he was a member, doing so without a contractor’s license or permits.
Jose Smith was directly addressed on the issues but he was customarily mute. We addressed him again after we discovered that Special Master Babak Movahedi had refused to reduce a $29,261.34 fine and waive the lien on Continuum 801, yet First Assistant City Attorney Steven Rothstein overruled the Special Master and ordered him to dismiss the case due to an allegedly defective notice. The defective notice argument had been presented by Jihad Doujeiji, apparently appearing as attorney-in-fact for Ms. Asgeirsdottir at an August 11, 2011 hearing, but the Special Master would have none of it: “DENIED.” A licensed lawyer for Ms. Asgeirsdottir filed a statutory notice of appeal to the circuit court with the Special Master, but we could find no evidence it was actually filed with the court or that the court decided the matter—Mr. Smith refused to provide us with any such record. A short time after the notice of appeal was given, $2,520 was collected from one of Mr. Doujeiji’s business entities, and called a “finance agreement,” apparently a settlement and unspoken admission that the notice was not defective.
City of Miami Beach Special Masters are magistrates with jurisdiction to judge code enforcement cases by authority of Florida’s Local Government Code Enforcement Boards Act, which was intended to provide local autonomy for the equitable resolution of cases. Our municipality has an alternative system whereby cases are brought before magistrates instead of a board. Cases before a board would be prosecuted by the city attorney. Code inspectors initiate the charges before the magistrates.
First of all, we found no authority given to the city attorney to dismiss special master cases. That would be tantamount to having a prosecutor overturning a judgment and making a private deal with the guilty party.
As we shall see below, Mr. Smith claims the city manager dismissed the case, providing us with no evidence of an order from the city manager. That may be a Freudian slip: since the forced resignation of former City Manager Jorge Gonzalez, it has been de rigueur to blame him for everything.
We have indeed allowed for the possibility that the notice may have been defective, even though a confidential source has informed us otherwise. Still, the documents on hand in the file the city provided are inconclusive. We concluded that IF notice was defective, THEN a great deal of the blame lies with the city attorney whose duty is to make sure that processes are legal.
Mr. Walters asked the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust for assistance in obtaining the information we wanted, and we courteously copied Mr. Smith. Instead of responding to the COE with a copy to the journalist, he addressed the editor, publisher and owner of the SunPost, a local paper that published the first three articles of the Getting Ahead of The Job Con Series:
“Mr. Walters has turned a routine Special Master code case (dismissed by the City Manager's office for lack of jurisdiction and service of process), into a cause célèbre to attack me, my staff, and the City.” Further conflating his ego with the City of Miami Beach, he went on to libel Mr. Walters—the racy details which will be provided in a future article.
There is no cause for celebration of a costly routine. If there were only ten such routine cases each month, with a total cost of $250,000, the annual cost would be $3,000,000. That would be around $15,000,000 during his tenure as city attorney. Add that to far more in lost permit fees. It is his refusal to respond to a simple question except with personal insults and an attempt to suppress the press that has made this case a cause célèbre.