The construction of the doomed Champlain Towers South building in Surfside was helmed by a developer charged with tax evasion in Canada, an engineer who oversaw a bungled municipal garage in Coral Gables, and an architect who temporarily lost his license for poor designs.
And for three critical months during construction, the team was joined by Alfred Weisbrod, a general contractor whose 20-year career in South Florida was pockmarked with complaints of “negligence,” “incompetency or misconduct,” and who had a propensity for abandoning projects midway through, according to court records and newly released documents from the state licensing agency.
Although Weisbrod’s troubles with the licensing agency came after his stint as one of Champlain Towers South’s three general contractors, experts still questioned his qualifications for participating on such a large-scale project.
“It’s just surprising that a contractor of that caliber would have been working on Champlain Towers South,” said Abieyuwa Aghayere, professor of structural engineering at Drexel University.
Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation records show Weisbrod, who is now deceased, was fined three times and threatened with suspension for various offenses throughout the 1980s and early ‘90s. He ultimately surrendered his license in 1998 in order “to avoid the necessity of further administrative proceedings” after the licensing agency filed three administrative claims accusing him of doing specialized work without the proper permits, licenses, and inspections, and of failing to complete the contracted work, mismanagement, incompetence and fraud.
While the root cause of the catastrophic collapse of Champlain Towers South that left 98 dead on June 24 is still unknown, engineers who reviewed building plans and photos of the debris as part of a Herald investigation agreed that faulty design and poor construction likely contributed to a worst-case scenario.
On a major project like Champlain South, the lead engineer helps design the structure to be strong and safe while the general contractor is in charge of building it. Both the contractor and the inspecting engineer — who at Champlain Towers was the same as the lead engineer — are responsible for ensuring the construction matches the design and meets the applicable building codes.
“If an engineer gets this wrong, the contractor is supposed to pick up on it,” said Gregg Schlesinger, a Fort Lauderdale contractor and attorney.
Engineers consulted by the Herald regarding Champlain Towers’ design and construction pointed to narrow columns that did not meet building code requirements and an apparent lack of rebar connecting the columns — two things they said might have been the difference between a limited failure of the pool deck, which cratered initially into a downstairs garage, and the total collapse of half the building. Both problems should have been caught by the original project engineer and the general contractor, experts told the Herald.
The Miami Herald contacted the Weisbrod family, which declined through an attorney to comment. The Herald also contacted several parties who had sued Weisbrod over the years, but did not immediately receive any responses.
One project, three contractors
After a delay due to a building moratorium, the initial phase of construction at Champlain Towers South took less than a year, Surfside building records show. The first building permit for Champlain Towers South was issued on Nov. 13, 1979, and by Oct. 23, 1980, engineer Sergio Breiterman had written to the town and signed off on the construction.
Within those 11 months and 10 days, the construction project was managed by three different general contractors.
Weisbrod was the second of the three.
Town records show Weisbrod took over on May 15, 1980, the same day the original contractor, George Batievsky, resigned.
“When you bring in a contractor mid-stream because of a dispute or something, that to me always spells trouble,” said Aghayere from Drexel University. Regardless of each contractor’s qualifications, Aghayere said the problem comes down to continuity.
“If you don’t have continuity, the [new] contractor may not have time to go back and look at how this building was built from the bottom level up,” Aghayere said.
Town records provided no explanation for the abrupt change in contractors, but records show the previous day the building’s structural drawings were updated to include a 13th-story penthouse, which town officials would later say was a flagrant violation of town ordinances.
Batievsky and his wife, Susie, a Realtor, later sued various people and entities involved in the project, including developer Nathan Reiber. Details of the case filed in August 1980 are unknown and records have since been destroyed.
News clippings from the time show Susie Batievsky went on to sell condos in the building when units from Champlain Towers South first hit the market. George Batievsky died in 1983, and Susie Batievsky — who remarried and later went by Berman — died this year on June 21.
Born into a manufacturing family from Philadelphia, Weisbrod was 51 years old when he was first licensed as a general contractor in Florida in 1979, licensing agency records show. One of his first jobs was overseeing the construction of an addition to the Lear School, a private preparatory academy on Biscayne Boulevard, according to a brief story in the Miami Herald archives.
Within nine months of Weisbrod being licensed in Florida, Joseph B Miller, a developer of Champlain Towers, wrote to the town of Surfside and authorized Weisbrod to take over as general contractor of the community’s crown-jewel project citing Batievsky’s resignation as the primary reason for the change. A new construction permit was issued that same day, this time under Weisbrod’s name.
Within three months of signing on, Weisbrod had himself been replaced on the Champlain Towers project. A permit, labeled “replacement of original permit” and dated Aug. 18, 1980, was issued to a third contractor, Arnold Neckman, a 47-year-old first licensed in Florida the previous month, according to state records. There was no mention of Weisbrod in any other town records related to the condo.
The day after taking over the job, Neckman applied for a separate building permit to build the 13th floor penthouse along the easternmost part of the building. Although his application was initially approved, the town later issued Neckman a cease-and-desist order, saying construction of the penthouse was a violation of the town code — something it accused Neckman of knowing prior to the issuance of the permits.
Within days, however, the town granted an exception to Champlain Towers and construction moved forward. The building’s certificate of occupancy was issued on Dec. 12, 1981.
Contractors quitting before the end of a job is “unusual,” said Dawn Lehman, professor of structural engineering at the University of Washington and consultant to the Herald. “It rarely happens because it means your whole crew is out of work,” Lehman said.
Unlike Weisbrod, neither Neckman nor Batievsky had a disciplinary record with the licensing agency. Neckman, like the other original general contractors, is deceased.
A history of ‘negligence’
Weisbrod worked in general contracting in Florida for decades, incorporating at least seven different companies related to the work, according to the state’s business registry. County records suggest that much of his work was in small-scale projects for single-family residences, rather than high-rises like Champlain Towers South. For example, in unincorporated Dade County, Weisbrod pulled 23 permits during his career, according to Tere Florin, a county records custodian. Of them, Florin said 13 were for window replacements in single-family homes. Only four involved repairs on condominiums.
Weisbrod was involved in two dozen civil lawsuits between 1981 and 2000, according to records maintained by the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts. Although most of the documents have been destroyed, what remains suggests the majority of the cases involved construction work. Judgments against him totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Between the judgments, fines and unpaid taxes, Weisbrod spent the better part of three decades in financial distress beginning in the early 1980s, just as Champlain Towers opened to residents.
In 1983, records from the licensing agency show Weisbrod was fined $250 and forced to pay back a deposit after a job building a backyard shed went sideways. Weisbrod started the job before getting a building permit or calling for an inspection, the state licensing board found.
That same year, Weisbrod gave a check worth $126.50 to the Miami-Dade building department for a pair of building permits, according to a complaint filed by the licensing agency. His check bounced. The same thing happened to his $14 check for microfilm records, the complaint stated.
Weisbrod didn’t pay the bills until February 1985, and was fined $500 as a result, according to the licensing agency.
In 1986, Weisbrod failed to pay $5,725 in taxes to the federal government, a record of the tax lien shows. Within a decade, additional liens for back taxes totaled nearly $400,000.
Weisbrod worked “erratically,” often working for a few days and then failing to show up or working half days, according to a 1984 complaint to the licensing agency. Four months after he took a job building a screen porch and pool, records show Weisbrod left the project “for an extended time” — and returned only after learning a supplier had filed a complaint with the state.
Shortly after that, Weisbrod “quit again,” having completed only about half of the project, according to the state agency, and allegedly stiffed the excavating contractor $1,130 in the process.
In an April 1985 settlement with the licensing agency, Weisbrod neither admitted nor denied the allegations but agreed to pay $5,000 to the homeowner. He was fined $500.
Other complaints before the licensing board were similar in nature, alleging Weisbrod “performed only minimal work,” and agency records show $500 fines stacked up.
In 1992, Weisbrod took jobs working on two roofs damaged during Hurricane Andrew and began construction without proper permits or inspections, according to an investigation by the licensing agency. Making matters worse, Weisbrod was not even licensed to practice roof contracting, the agency noted.
Again, records show Weisbrod “abandoned” both projects before completion. One homeowner later sued Weisbrod and won a $50,000 judgment in Miami-Dade circuit court. The associated administrative complaint filed by the licensing agency accused Weisbrod of “fraud or deceit in the practice of contracting.“
Weisbrod was also sued over “negligence” involving construction on Hollywood’s Hillcrest Condominiums and 12590 Coronado Towers in North Miami, resulting in a $115,500 judgment against him, according to a record of the judgment filed with the Miami-Dade clerk of courts.
Inspections performed after the collapse of Champlain Towers found the Coronado Towers had the “most significant structural defect of any occupied building in North Miami,” and the balconies were deemed unsafe to walk on, according to the Real Deal, which obtained an internal memo referencing the building.
The final blow came when the licensing board went after Weisbrod in 1997 for failing to pay a different court judgment against him in Palm Beach County — this one for over $111,000 in 1996 for a lawsuit related to his contracting work for a Palm Beach condo.
In 1998, to avoid administrative proceedings on the three pending cases, Weisbrod agreed to relinquish his general contractor license in Florida. State licensing records do not indicate that his license was ever reinstated.