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Builder's victims come up short in cash-recovery efforts

Luigi, 71, and Maria Zaccaria, 63, were among the 76 victims of home builder Steven Bartlett. Those 76 victims claimed to have lost $3.4-million, but efforts to recoup money have been unsuccessful.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Luigi, 71, and Maria Zaccaria, 63, were among the 76 victims of home builder Steven Bartlett. Those 76 victims claimed to have lost $3.4-million, but efforts to recoup money have been unsuccessful.

Earlier this year, the Coral Bay saga concluded with the conviction of home builder Steven Bartlett.

A judge in April sentenced the 41-year-old to 20 years in prison for defrauding 100-plus customers in 2005 and 2006. (He is serving his time at the Taylor Correctional Institution Annex in Perry.)

The verdict ended the legal fight but not the victims' quest for restitution. Altogether, they lost an estimated $5-million, with their homes left in various stages of completion.

In the weeks after the trial, the customers battled with the state to get money from the Florida Homeowners' Construction Recovery Fund.

The fund was created in 1993 after Hurricane Andrew as a way to compensate homeowners who suffered financial losses because of a contractor's mismanagement or misconduct. It is financed primarily by a surcharge on building permits — in essence, by homeowners.

A total of 76 victims of Bartlett's sought help in recouping $3.4-million — one of the largest claims ever against the fund.

In an extensive Times report published in April, the homeowners decried the state system, calling it "an absolute joke." And just as they expected, the state's system failed to help the bulk of the victims.

On May 15, the state account met its $500,000-per-builder ceiling, said Alexis Antonacci, a spokeswoman for the state agency that controls the money.

In the end, only 15 customers received restitution. Five were awarded $50,000, the maximum per claim. The others received payments ranging from $6,900 to $49,000.

The fund reimburses only for "actual damages." The extensive paperwork needed to file a claim is accepted on a first-come basis once homeowners get an order of restitution from the state licensing board or a judgment from a court. Payout decisions are made by the contractor licensing board.

Luigi Zaccaria and his wife, Maria, never made it to the end of the process. They lost more than $26,000 to Bartlett, who only cleared the land for their future home in Royal Highlands. Zaccaria filed his application in 2006 but didn't receive any money.

He said he feels betrayed by the state, especially after representatives from the state fund held meetings and made promises. "They are liars," Zaccaria said recently.

Walter Harfmann is another victim who had troubles with the system. He contracted with Coral Bay to build four houses for different family members. It took him six weeks of back-and-forth until his claim was accepted.

He lost about $31,000 — and received nothing from the state.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Builder's victims come up short in cash-recovery efforts 12/25/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 30, 2008 10:53am]
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