Files are missing in the city's permits and inspections unit, and a police detective told staff members Thursday that an official investigation will be launched if the documents don't show up by next week.
The missing files, which mostly involve rehabilitation projects, are prompting the city to put locks on all file cabinets in the department and to change the locks on some doors.
None of the seven missing files or field notes involves any projects connected with developer Rocco R. Termini, said Richard M. Tobe, who heads the Department of Economic Development, Permit and Inspection Services. Those files were routed to the FBI last month after questions surfaced about the city's handling of the Webb Building rehabilitation project, where a construction worker fell to his death.
Tobe would not disclose the projects that the missing files track, but he said that a few are "fairly significant" rehabilitation projects and that one is a new construction project.
Each of the missing files contains permits, handwritten field inspection notes and other documents that meticulously trace city oversight of the projects, Tobe said. Six of the files belong to one inspector, who recently reported a missing file to a supervisor.
That is when Tobe ordered a full inventory of all files. During the review, Tobe said, another inspector reported that field notes he kept on a pad had been missing for months.
City officials doubt that sloppy filing or oversights account for the missing documents.
But what would motivate someone to steal files?
"We can hypothesize a lot of things, but I prefer not to speculate," Tobe said.
He added that shortly after officials started asking questions about missing files, three "magically appeared" on a desk in the department's third-floor office.
What's more, Tobe said, there were apparently similar problems before he took over the department 15 months ago.
"I have been told that files used to go missing," he said.
During the search for the files, Tobe said, there was an unexpected discovery. Buried in a storage room were documents dating from 1915 -- files that should have been placed in the city's permanent storage facility.
"No one even knew they were in the storage room," he said.
The department has been under scrutiny since a 24-year-old construction worker plummeted to his death March 20 at the Webb Building on Pearl Street.
A city inspector alleged that First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey told police not to enforce a stop-work order at the site Feb. 23. Casey and the officers involved have disputed the accusation.
The controversy raised questions about whether the city might have shown favoritism toward Termini, who was a major financial contributor to Mayor Byron W. Brown's 2005 mayoral campaign.
The FBI, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Erie County district attorney's office have begun investigations.
Meanwhile, Brown appointed a four-member panel to determine whether permit and inspection policies were followed on the Webb Building project. The panel began interviewing key players Thursday, and Casey was the first to be questioned. He told The Buffalo News that the statements he made to the review panel are identical to his public comments on the matter.
"The truth is very easy to repeat," Casey said.
The panel also met with Tobe and some city inspectors. However, the inspectors requested that their interviews be rescheduled for next week because their attorney was unable to attend Thursday's session.
Kevin Fitzgerald, president of the building inspectors union, said he is worried that there might an effort to unfairly pin the blame for departmental problems on some of his members.
Fitzgerald said he was told that employees could face disciplinary hearings if Brown administration officials determine that employees' statements to the review panel indicate that they did not follow proper procedures. He also was disappointed that the panel has decided to do its fact-finding in closed sessions.
"I have my doubts about this process," he said.
But Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. of the North District, the only city official who sits on the panel, insisted that no one is "looking for scapegoats."
"This isn't a witch hunt," Golombek said. "We're simply trying to get to the bottom of things."
The panel hopes to comply with Brown's request and release its findings by the end of the month.