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State examines claims against building department

Allegations of missing public records and homes not built to code are under scrutiny, says Port Richey's city manager.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


PORT RICHEY -- A state agency is looking into longstanding allegations of misdeeds in the Port Richey Building Department, city manager Vince Lupo said Thursday.

The allegations include missing public records, houses not built to code and other claims that have circulated around the city since the early 1990s.

Lupo also said that the city had quietly commissioned its own investigation of the Building Department. He released a report of its findings that contained little new information and no clear accusations of malfeasance.

But it did say that building code deficiencies on several properties warranted further investigation, and that they were what prompted the city inquiry.

Lupo said City Attorney Paul Marino insisted that the city do its own investigation. Marino, he said, was concerned that the city might be facing legal liability over homes not built to state code but approved by city building officials.

The city hired Michael A. Quill, a detective lieutenant with the Gulfport Police Department as a private investigator. Lupo said Quill's only directive was to spend less than $2,500.

Quill's report details several well-reported incidents, including missing public records dealing with home construction grants and gambling ship parking lot projects.

The report also details complaints from a local homeowner who discovered building code deficiencies during a remodeling effort.

The home, owned by Mark and Lynn Goettel, was found to be missing some hurricane straps and had other structural problems. The Goettels were told that their home needed more than $20,000 worth of repairs.

According to a city memo, the Goettels had threatened to sue the city for approving their home when it wasn't built to code.

The report says that while there are public records missing from the building department, the department has moved four times since 1992.

"It is going to be difficult to determine where the files went or who may have removed the files," Quill's report reads.

Thursday, Lupo sent the city's report to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the state agency that licenses building officials.

Lupo said DPBR investigators have already been to the city. The state, he said, has more power to investigate building code problems and has "the ability to transfer it to the legal authorities if they believe it's warranted."

A DBPR spokeswoman could not confirm that her agency was investigating. However, she said a complaint would not become public unless the agency had found probable cause that wrongdoing had occurred.

The report Lupo released Thursday deals largely with allegations between 1992 and 2000, a period that generally parallels the tenure of former building official Ralph Zanello. Port Richey had three different building officials after Zanello left in 1999: Rune Lero, Gregory Schneider and Bill Sanders.

Lero and Schnieder quit, claiming that former council member Bob Leggiere had interfered with their duties. Sanders is still with the city and is credited with much of its current stability.

News of the new city and state inquiries comes a year after the conclusion of a major investigation of the building department by Port Richey police.

That case ended up before a grand jury. No indictments were returned, but the grand jury criticized Leggiere for interfering with the building department and said the city should disband the building department if politics could not be kept out of department business.

On Thursday, Leggiere said that the information in the city's investigative report had "been out there for two or three years. No one did anything about it."

During the state's investigation, Leggiere lost two elections for mayor, which he attributes to "killing the messenger."

"I just want to see the justice done, the city to clean house," said Leggiere, who spoke with the city's investigator for the report.

Lupo said he didn't inform the council or talk about the investigation publicly so as not to not create a public spectacle or interfere with any future investigation.

Lupo said the city had already fixed record-keeping problems in the building department, and most records are now computerized and automated. He said the city "should wait to see what actions the state may choose to take."

"After it's all said and done," Lupo said, "we have placed significant safeguards and undertaken significant administrative changes in the procedures of the building department."

-- Staff writer Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com.

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