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Barbershop investigators moved to help with backlog of real estate cases

They were trained to check for head lice in combs. Now they will tackle a backlog of real estate investigations.

State regulators have pulled five investigators out of the state's barbershops to help supplement 33 other Department of Business and Professional Regulation investigators already working more than 700 open real estate cases, some already at least a year old.

The transition from dirty scissors to dirty real estate professionals made Talbert Linwood, a 34-year barber and state-certified instructor in South Florida, laugh at a recent Florida Barber Board meeting in Tampa.

"They investigate safety, sterilization and sanitation in barbershops," he said. "They know about transmitting diseases. What do they know about real estate?"

Juana Watkins, head of the Division of Real Estate, told the Florida Real Estate Commission that the extra investigators will help eliminate the older cases by the end of the year.

"They're able to step in and make an immediate impact," she said.

The five also were monitoring 18 other professions, including construction workers, geologists, harbor pilots and athletic and talent agents. The new investigators, said Sandi Copes Poreda, a DBPR spokeswoman, were transferred because "they had previous experience working for the Division of Real Estate and with the real estate industry."

"This is a new effort to address the increase in the number of complaints and help us reduce the number of aged investigations," Poreda said. The new investigators "took over many cases of a lower complexity level, so the real estate investigators were able to dedicate their time to more complex issues."

Michael Guju, an attorney and member of the Real Estate Commission, understands why the investigators are being shifted to real estate: there's no money to hire new investigators. But he questions whether that is the best way to solve the problems.

"There is a time period where they have to learn real estate laws and regulations," he said. "It's not the most efficient use of state employees."

There will be plenty to keep them busy.

Investigators already have 745 open cases and the agency receives about 6,000 total complaints a year. So far this year, the agency determined that 1,945 of those were legally sufficient real estate complaints, Poreda said.

Another 2,100 investigations are waiting for DBPR lawyers to decide which ones go before the Florida Real Estate Commission for discipline, get forwarded to state attorneys for criminal charges, or get dismissed. The cases could also be sent back to investigators for more follow-up.

Whatever the qualifications of the new investigators, critics doubt they'll do much to address the growing problems.

State attorneys say most real estate cases they receive for prosecution are of such poor quality that they cannot file charges. The case files lack any evidence of wrongdoing or witness statements and other important documents. And the statute of limitations often expires before they receive the cases.

"That's a real disadvantage," said Al Guttmann, an assistant state attorney in Broward County's economic crime unit. "It's very helpful to know what we're trying to prove in court."

The biggest issue is the delay in getting cases, said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Gary White, adding: "By the time we get them, it's a cold trail."

Poreda, the DBPR spokeswoman, stressed that the agency's administrative investigations have different standards than criminal probes.

"Our investigators are not sworn law enforcement officers and are intended to serve our administrative purpose, not develop criminal cases for prosecution," Poreda wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "Criminal case development would be at the sole discretion of the state attorneys."

Assistant State Attorney Dean Plattner of the 20th Judicial Circuit in Southwest Florida told the Times this year that DBPR cases are only bare summary reports. (He died in October.)

"In my experience, this is typical of the DBPR reports we get," Plattner wrote in an email. "They are 'simply complying' with their statutory obligation to notify the (state attorney's office) of a potential criminal violation, but there has been no 'criminal investigation' conducted."

State Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, a longtime Realtor in southwest Florida, said prosecutors and regulators need to make sure consumers aren't harmed by bad real estate practitioners. The system, he said, needs repairing.

"If we have challenges, we certainly need to work on the process," Hudson said. "We need to make sure bad (real estate workers) are taken out of the profession."

Unfortunately for consumers, most real estate cases aren't a high priority for state attorneys, since they have more serious and violent crimes to prosecute.

The Times reported in February that real estate professionals who defraud clients or otherwise break the law rarely get prosecuted or criminally charged. Of the 1,595 cases sent to state attorney's offices in 2009 and 2010, the Times found that the average investigation took more than 18 months.

The time lapse allowed more than 100 real estate professionals to commit additional misdeeds while the initial complaint was still being investigated. And of the 33 most egregious cases only three were charged with a crime.

Kathy Heaven, who also prosecutes economic crimes in Broward, said unscrupulous real estate practitioners are more likely to face criminal charges if the victims notify law enforcement immediately, instead of first going through the state regulatory process.

"It's not the most effective way of doing things," she said.

Times news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

Barbershop investigators moved to help with backlog of real estate cases 11/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 25, 2011 10:00pm]
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