County alleges improper permits by Ft. Lauderdale official

A Broward County inspector general alleges that the City of Fort Lauderdale’s top building official improperly authorized building permits for a beach front luxury condo and two other construction projects in the city.

In a letter dated Wednesday to Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis and city commissioners, Inspector General John W. Scott declared John Travers, who leads the city’s building services division. “engaged in misconduct by evading the dictates of the Florida Building Code in the fashion by which he, personally, or BSD [Building Services Division] under him, allowed construction or renovation on three building projects in the City of Fort Lauderdale.”

A major focus of the division, which is responsible for issuing all building permits in the city, is to ensure that all commercial and residential buildings and structures comply with the Florida Building Code, according to the city’s website.

One of the buildings raised in the report is a 12-story luxury condominium known as the Gale Ft. Lauderdale Residences & Boutique Hotel at 2900 Riomar St.

Travers, the letter alleges, sanctioned “unpermitted construction” at the site “by affirmatively giving cause to those involved to believe that the project had a proper permit or that its construction was otherwise authorized.”

After the city department’s enforcement staff “issued a stop-work order on the project for performing work without a permit, Mr. Travers then compounded his misconduct by directing BSD administrative staff to issue the project a sham permit that enabled construction to continue.”

The letter goes on to state that “BSD subsequently issued a permit for the project based on the relevant disciplines’ reviews and approvals of the project’s plans, but only after construction of the building’s shell was almost complete,” the letter says.

A second building in question is an eight-story apartment project at 1919 SE 10th Avenue. In a public statement also issued Wednesday, the OIG said that after the city inspection staff had issued a stop-work order, the department “unlawfully issued a permit revision to legitimize unpermitted construction and authorize further construction without the fire safety plans review and approval required by law.”

A third building was a renovation project for the Broward Sheriff’s Office at 1415 SW 62nd St. After a stop-work order was issued for that project, the OIG said, “Mr. Travers unlawfully allowed the contractor to complete the renovation even though the only permit issued for that project at the time covered a different scope of work.”

The conclusions are detailed in a 514-page report by county Inspector General John W. Scott. The report contains multiple exhibits including inter-departmental emails, forms, and other communications.

At the end, the report also contains sharp rebuttals and denials from the city and from Travers’ attorney, Jefferey Lawler of Fort Lauderdale.

In a statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, City Manager Chris Lagerbloom rejected the inspector general’s findings.

“The City of Fort Lauderdale wholeheartedly disagrees with the OIG’s findings and conclusions, which are based on erroneous assumptions and a misunderstanding of permitting processes,” he said. “We would like to emphasize that all building permit reviews were completed in accordance with the Florida Building Code, Florida Fire Prevention Code, municipal ordinances, and Florida law. At no point in time has the integrity of the building permit process been compromised in any manner. The City has and continues to take building permitting seriously and will always strive to ensure permits are issued in the interest of health, life, and safety as mandated by the State of Florida.”

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Travers referred a reporter to the response authored by Lawler, who asserted that the OIG report “contains numerous misstatements, inaccuracies, and incorrect assumptions regarding the process, but more particularly, as to Mr. Travers’ actual, personal involvement with these projects as the Chief Building Official for the City of Fort Lauderdale’s Building Services Division (BSD).

“Ultimately,” Lawler wrote, “Mr. Travers did not engage in any misconduct as the OIG Report attempts to characterize, nor did he violate the Florida Building Code, the Florida Fire Prevention Code, state statutes or City Ordinances” pertaining to the three projects in question.

Among other things, Lawler noted that a fire department officer had deemed a fire safety review at the Gale as “not required” for a permit application at the beachfront project.

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“The statement in the OIG Report that ‘Mr. Travers caused those involved to believe that the project had a proper permit or that its construction was otherwise authorized when it was not’ is another presumptive and erroneous remark not based on facts,” Lawler said.

And he added: “The OIG Report’s repeated use of the term ‘sham permit’ is derogatory and misleading.”

The inspector general’s report did not conclude that any of the projects in the investigation face any present-day safety problems. It also did not conclude that Travers had acted corruptly.

But Scott’s office did recommend an independent audit of the city’s permitting process dating back to November 2014, when Travers started working for the city.

The audit, the report says, should include “testing the validity of a sample of permits issued for the construction of buildings that involved stop-work orders, phased permits, and permits by affidavit.

“We further recommend that the city take whatever steps it deems necessary to ensure that any violations identified here or by any future audit did not impact the integrity of any construction,” the report says.

The inspector general also is referring the matter to the Broward County Board of Rules and Appeals and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation “for whatever action those agencies deem appropriate.”

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