Inspector general opens investigation into Fort Lauderdale building department

Building official demoted after blowing whistle on problem

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Broward Inspector General's Office has opened an investigation into the Fort Lauderdale building department's handling of flooding elevation levels at new housing developments in the city.

The investigation comes in light of allegations first reported by Local 10 that at least two major developments -- the Northwest Gardens public housing project and the private Pearl high-rise apartment complex on Federal Highway -- were approved by the city for construction despite a reported failure to meet federal ground elevation standards for flooding.

"They've been looking at documents," said City Manager Lee Feldman regarding the probe. "But we haven't had any further discussion with them."

The visit from the Inspector General's Office followed last week's demotion of the city's top building official after he blew the whistle on the problem.

John Madden, the city's interim building official, denied a certificate of occupancy for two buildings in Northwest Gardens, a $58 million joint effort between the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority and the private Miami developer Carlisle Group, based on it allegedly being built beneath federal flood ground level standards.

This past Wednesday, Madden sent an email to city commissioners alerting them of "a problem with our ability of effectively safeguarding ourselves against flooding." Later that day he was abruptly removed from his post and demoted back down to his previous job of chief building inspector.

Feldman said the decision was made to remove Madden because "he was not making the decisions he was having to make -- he was deferring them upward to me." He denied it was a case of shooting the messenger, saying instead he needed someone in the post who is "comfortable making the decisions."

"I would never ask any employee to make a decision that is improper, unethical, illegal or in violation of any county, city or federal law," he said.

Feldman acknowledged that the city may have erred, and said his staff is conducting an audit of its own and that he will submit a full report for the city commission on the matter.

"We are doing things correctly," Feldman said. "We are moving forward with an audit of our flood elevation certificates."