Ex-Surfside official takes leave from Doral post in wake of building collapse

Rosendo “Ross” Prieto, the former top building official for the town of Surfside, has taken a leave of absence as Doral’s temporary building official after reports that he reviewed a troubling 2018 report about the Champlain Towers South condo and then told residents the building appeared to be “in very good shape.”

The city of Doral said in a statement that Prieto is taking a leave from C.A.P. Government Inc., a firm that provides building department services to government clients. Prieto, who left his post in Surfside last November, had been assigned in May by C.A.P. to work for Doral, one of Miami-Dade’s fastest-growing cities.

“On June 28, 2021, C.A.P. Government, Inc. notified the City of Doral that Mr. Prieto was on a leave of absence and assigned another employee to assist the City of Doral Building Department on a temporary basis,” Doral spokeswoman Maggie Santos said.

Edie Ousley, a spokeswoman for C.A.P., confirmed that Prieto was taking a leave of absence. She declined to comment on whether the move was voluntary.

Doral has contracted with C.A.P. Government Inc. for building department services since 2018. The arrangement renewed in April shows the city pays the firm at hourly rates for various functions: $77.50 for inspection services, $87.50 for review of various plans, including mechanical and electrical plans, and $125 for review of structural plans.

Prieto did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He has come under scrutiny in recent days after the catastrophic partial collapse of Champlain Towers South that killed at least 12 people and left 149 unaccounted for as of Tuesday evening.

One month after engineer Frank Morabito flagged “major structural damage” at the building in October 2018, Prieto attended a condo association meeting and told the board he had reviewed the report and believed the building was in good shape, according to minutes from the meeting obtained by the Miami Herald.

Records released by Surfside show that a member of the condo board, Mara Chouela, sent the engineer’s report to Prieto two days before the meeting, asked Prieto to attend the meeting and met with Prieto in his office to discuss the matter beforehand.

Ross Prieto

“Thank you so much for having us in your office. We appreciate your time a lot. We would like to invite you to our board meeting on [Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018] at 7:30 to explain the facts of the 40-year inspection,” Chouela wrote.

Prieto told the Herald this past Saturday that he did not recall receiving the report and did not recall any major concerns with the building, adding: “If there had been, they would have been addressed right away.”

On Sunday, after NPR reported that he had attended the board meeting, Prieto declined to clarify his statements from the prior day, citing a lawyer’s advice.

The morning after attending the November 2018 meeting, Prieto emailed then-town manager Guillermo Olmedillo to report that “the response was very positive from everyone in the room,” and that he was impressed with the proactive approach of the condo association to its upcoming required 40-year recertification.

The recertification process mandates that, once a structure turns 40, its owners must hire a registered architect or professional engineer to do electrical and structural inspections within 90 days of receiving notice from the town.

Then, if repairs are found to be necessary, the owner gets 150 days to complete them. The costs of repairs can be apportioned among the unit owners. And if the town’s building official determines the building to be unsafe, the case gets forwarded to the county’s Unsafe Structures Board for review.

Champlain Towers South hired Morabito, the engineer, in 2018 to assess what repairs were needed before the 40-year inspection process formally began. Surfside officials said they had not yet received a final report due this year that would have required Prieto’s sign-off.

Prieto has worked for several municipalities, including Miami Shores and Miami Beach, prior to his stint in Surfside and then Doral. In 1997, he was the assistant director of building and zoning in Miami Shores when the Biscayne Kennel Club prematurely collapsed on workers during a demolition project, killing two brothers from Broward County — Charles Schwab, 36, of Coral Springs, and William Schwab, 31, of Hollywood — and injuring three others.

After the dog track incident, Prieto told the Miami Herald that inspectors had visited the site four times, but that their responsibilities were limited to ensuring the job was on schedule, not that workers were using proper procedures.

“Everything was going according to plan,” he told The Associated Press. “From what I hear, this is just a construction accident. Accidents can happen.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the demolition contractor, Cuyahoga Wrecking, more than $90,000 later that year for failing to tell its demolition crew of the hazards involved in tearing down the clubhouse-grandstand building, and for putting its workers in an area where steel support columns had been cut without an engineering survey being performed first.

It was also later revealed that Cuyahoga Wrecking wasn’t a licensed contractor, and that another contractor had pulled the permit from Village Hall before turning it over to Cuyahoga.

There was no indication that Prieto or the village bore responsibility for the incident. They were not named in a lawsuit filed by an injured survivor, Mario Giron, who suffered a broken leg.

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