By David Arthur Walters
Our investigation into the public records of renegade contractor Jihad Doujeiji dba Sharron Lewis Design Central et al in conjunction with our series Getting Ahead of The Job Con led us to an old code violation citation that was disposed of by Special Master Babak Movahedi on August 11, 2011. The special magistrate denied a request to mitigate a fine of nearly $30,000. However, First Assistant City Attorney Steven Rothstein dismissed all but $2,520 of the fine and released the lien on the property at 50 South Pointe Drive Suite 801, stating that the original notice of the violation was defective. We questioned the City Attorney’s Office, whose relationship with the current Special Masters has become controversial of late, about the dismissal.
Mr. Doujeiji had been caught demolishing the luxury condominium at the Continuum without a permit, so a Stop Work Order and Notice of Violation were noticed to one Ricardo D. Borkowski at that address on September 14, 2009. However, Mr. Borkowski had sold the unit on August 19 to Margret Asgeirsdottir, and the deed was recorded on August 25.
Mr. Doujeiji had induced Ms. Asgeirsdottir to sign a Notice of Commencement in blank. He filled in the blanks himself, indicating that both she and Ricardo D. Borkowski owned the unit, and then he had his significant other, Sharron Lewis, whose general contractor’s license he worked under, notarize the document on September 9, five days before the Notice of Violation was issued and fifteen days after the property was conveyed to Ms. Asgeirsdottir.
Mr. Doujeiji is accustomed to having owners sign blank documents even under penalties of perjury. Affiants may be held responsible for the content of affidavits they sign in blank, as if the person filling in the blanks were their agent. We do believe Mr. Doujeiji was acting as agent for the owner, and of course he had full knowledge of the notice of violation and later notices of hearings, some of which were mailed to the owner at his business address. We speculated that any notices appertaining to Ms. Asgeirsdottir served on him could be construed as service on her. And since a document signed by her indicated Mr. Borkowski as a co-owner, service on him could be construed as service on her.
We are uncertain of the date Ms. Asgeirsdottir signed documents, if she did in fact sign them, and, if she did, whether she had appeared before the notary in person.
In any event, the inspector found the interior walls and ceilings of the Continuum apartment being demolished without a permit. The violation continued hence a complaint was filed in the code enforcement court, where a Special Master’s hearing was scheduled February 4, 2010, and a notice thereof was sent to Mr. Borkowski at the property address. On January 26, Mr. Borkowski notified the court that he did not even own the property for it had been sold to Ms. Asgeirsdottir prior to the date the violation was noticed. On January 13, 2010, Cynthia Neves, clerk of the special magistrate court, had already detected the error and directed that the notice of the hearing be resent to the same address but with Ms. Asgeirdottir’s name on it. Envelopes with notices were returned thereafter unclaimed, addressee unknown, one marked “Not (here) 1-15-10.” This would be the case for later notices as well. We saw no evidence in the file such as an affidavit that constructive notice was given as per the Miami Beach Code: If both certified and first class mailings are returned, then constructive notice can be given by publication by posting the notice on the property and at City Hall, proof of that notice being provided by affidavit.
She did not appear at the February 4 hearing, where the Special Magistrate Joe Kaplan ordered a fine of $150 per day, to run from March 29 until reaching $25,000. The magistrate’s order was filed in the circuit court on May 17 at which time it became a lien on the property. The fine mounted to $25,000 plus costs.
Mr. Doujeiji eventually completed the demolition, flooring and renovation of the fabulous apartment, which comprised three units conjoined, at a total stated value of $123,100, paying permit fees of $11,437. Given his modus operandi, i.e. “getting ahead of the job like everybody does,” without paying full permit fees if he can get away with it, and given the luxurious nature of the unit, we estimated the real value of the construction to be several times that, with unpaid permit fees of $30,000 or more. More recently, in 2011, he got a flooring contractor to pull a permit for Continuum 2602, laid down the floor and proceeded to with a full a non-permitted build-out of the unit. He completed a build-out in Suite 1801 at the Icon without pulling a permit at all. In 2012, his expeditor Orestes “Rusty” Innocenti helped him get a contractor to pull a permit at Sunset Harbour TS3, but for a completely empty space, for the demolition of an imaginary bathroom and kitchen; Mr. Doujeiji’s crew managed to complete nearly $500,000 of new construction there before he was caught red handed. Lately, he has allegedly been renovating an office/apartment building in downtown Miami without permits and a general contractor’s license, right under the noses of city and county inspectors.
There are no doubt other unpermitted jobs completed by Mr. Doujeiji that we are unaware of. We single his jobs out merely as an example of what seems to be a general practice due to a lax and perhaps corrupt regulatory milieu. That is, what he does is what almost everybody does at one time or another. We have been asked to investigate instances of unpermitted construction and fine write-offs that would make his infractions a drop in the bucket.
Ms. Asgeirsdottir and her husband Skuli Mogensen
According to a recording of the event which we retrieved, Mr. Doujeiji and an unnamed person representing Ms. Asgeirsdottir appeared August 11, 2011, before Babak Movahedi, the magistrate sitting in the case, and asked him to mitigate the nearly $30,000 fine, including expenses, basically because it “was not fair.” The owner’s representative stated that the owner lived out of the country hence did not receive mail appertaining to the case, that she had no idea there was a fine on the property, and had only became aware of it a few weeks past. Mr. Doujeiji said he began construction without a permit, thinking he could get the permits right away. He thought there should be no fine since he pulled the permit about 30 days after the citation, and he was appearing in hopes that the judge would help him. Besides, only some drywall was removed as part of the demolition. The judge did not buy the purportedly specious arguments. He said he was not presiding to help anyone but to find the facts and apply the law. He looked at the photographs and noted that far more than a little demolition had occurred―in fact, the apartment was devastated. He said the owner had the responsibility to know what is going on with her property. Ignorance is no excuse, he said, and getting mail about the property is the owner’s problem. If the contractor started the job without the owner’s consent, then that would be a civil matter between the owner and the contractor, and the owner can sue the contractor, but that has nothing to do with responsibility for the fine. In any event, he said, the date a permit is approved does not matter: a fine runs until the work that cures the violation is finished, and so it ran. Since the owner’s representatives offered no legal grounds for mitigation, or good reasons why the fine was unfair or inequitable, mitigation was denied.
We note that a formal motion to quash the order for the fine and waive the lien on grounds of defective notice pursuant to the pertinent Florida statutes and local ordinance was not made at the hearing by the persons appearing for Ms. Asgeirsdottir. We do not know if the Special Master would have granted mitigation or dismissal if that formal argument were made.
Harold Rosen, an attorney, was finally engaged by Mr. Doujeiji or Ms. Asgeirsdottir to represent her. He filed a copy of a notice of appeal to the circuit court with the special master on August 29, 2011. City Attorney Jose Smith referred us to a circuit court case, but we found no appeal actually filed with and disposed of by the circuit court itself. Indeed, we found nothing after that in Special Master File BV09001224 except an order from First Assistant City Attorney Steven Rothstein to “dismiss” the case, along with copies of two checks totaling $2,520, identified as a “Finance Dept. Agreement, Defective Notice Per Finance, T C. Attorney” (sic). We could not say upon what authority the City Attorney could dismiss a case decided by the code enforcement court short of appealing it to the circuit court as provided by state law and local ordinance. But a city attorney would not appeal against the city’s interest, to dismiss a case decided in its favor. If there were a settlement agreement contrary to the findings of fact and rulings of law by the special magistrate, we believed the settlement should have been documented with a thorough explanation and the case dismissed by the circuit court. In the alternative, perhaps the city attorney could have applied to the special magistrate for a rehearing of the matter.
“The original notice was defective,” City Attorney Jose Smith said when we questioned him on the matter, describing the matter as a routine code violation case dismissed for lack of jurisdiction and service or process. He gave the explanation that was not on file:
“The city issued the violation to a person who no longer owned the unit. The city did not issue the violation against the actual violator who did the unpermitted work. The city improperly tried to join the violator in the case without proper service. An appeal to the circuit court was filed. Mr. Rothstein did the only ethical, legal thing he could do, to wit: dismiss the case. The subsequent owner paid a $2,500.00 fine after the work was legalized.”
At first glance, Mr. Smith’s reasoning appeared to be sound; that is, if the original notice served on the former owner were controlling and the subsequent notices to the correct owner were irrelevant. But there was no written record of that disposition so we remained somewhat skeptical. Even if the notice were fatally defective, as we thought to be the case after reading the state statute and city code in respect to service of process, when the only statutory venue for appeal seemed to be the circuit court? And of course he would not appeal versus the city that he represents. We found no record of the circuit court case. Why is that record not in the file, arousing reasonable suspicion of unwarranted dealings behind the scenes? If this sort of defect in service of process is routine, and if the procedures are somehow defective at all levels, is not the city routinely responsible for advising everyone concerned what changes must be made in defective routines?
We are standing by for answers to those questions at deadline.