Over the last decade, David Helms won highly coveted contracts to build million-dollar dream homes for the Tampa Bay area's elite. His trouble was finishing them. Instead of leaving a mark as one of the preeminent home contractors in Tampa Bay, the president of Signature Built by David Helms faces a legacy increasingly under scrutiny by local and state authorities as well as the well-to-do clients who now say he duped them. State prosecutors have brought two cases of misdemeanor charges for unlicensed contracting against Helms, whose past includes a guilty plea in a federal felony bank fraud case. The state charges follow citations and fines by Pinellas County against Helms for unlicensed contracting. And his clients — including prominent lawyer Barry Cohen and private educators Richard and Constance Wendlek — are suing him for trouble with his workmanship and failure to complete their projects.
"When you come to that last lap, he runs out of air," said former Madeira Beach City Commissioner John Wolbert, who contracted with Helms in 2005 to rebuild his home after Hurricane Frances blew off part of his roof.
"He just can't finish a house. He has done us wrong," Wolbert said. "He has done a lot of us wrong."
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Helms lives the life of a well-heeled member of the community. His three homes, disclosed in his ongoing divorce case, include an 11,000-square-foot Pasadena mansion that sports a 350-square-foot gym with glass walls.
His attorney, Warren J. Knaust, describes Helms as a solid businessman whose work has graced the front page of Pass-a-Grille's Parade of Homes. Knaust said Helms is the victim of clients who simply did not want to pay their bills in a tough economy.
"They've all not paid hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars," Knaust said. "In a nutshell, the people don't want to pay."
Knaust, who filed the corporate papers for Helms' contracting and construction businesses, said the contractor intended to handle his business correctly and applied for the appropriate licenses, despite county and state arguments that Helms was not licensed.
"It's funny that the county is now taking that position," said Knaust, adding that the existence of a license and permits shows Helms sought to do it correctly. "I think intent is of significance."
Helms came to the Tampa Bay area after pleading guilty to one of nine counts related to a felony federal bank fraud case in 1994.
A federal judge sentenced him to six months and a day of prison and five years of supervised released. The judge also ordered him to pay $113,575 in restitution to the Home Federal Savings and Loan in Charlotte, N.C.
Two years after the end of Helms' probation and supervised release in 1999, he created Signature Built by David Helms Inc. And it wasn't long before workers for Helms began swinging hammers.
His felony case could have been of little consequence in the road ahead, if it were not for the fact that a felony conviction precludes a person from receiving a construction license in Florida.
Without his own license, Helms needed a so-called qualifier — someone who registers with the state and assumes responsibility for and oversees the work of a company performing licensed projects. But county licensing officials say Helms didn't follow the correct procedures.
It was a problem that would come back to haunt him.
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Helms had a gift for wooing business, his clients say.
Wolbert contracted with Helms in September 2005, about a year after the contractor picked up work for powerful Tampa Bay lawyer Barry Cohen. Wolbert needed his house rebuilt from scratch after Hurricane Frances tore part of the roof off and the interior was soaked with rain.
Not long after work began, it became stop and go.
"We'd go weeks and nobody would show up," said Wolbert, who contracted with Helms for $740,000. "We had sheetrock that rotted."
In May 2008, Wolbert became the first to file a formal complaint against Helms with the county licensing board. Others would follow with complaints and lawsuits.
"We have cited him on a number of occasions," said Rodney Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. "The way it came to us is there were problems with some of the houses that were not being corrected."
One of the complaints came from the Wendleks, founders of the exclusive Academy at the Lakes private school in Land O' Lakes. The couple contracted with Helms for construction of a $1.6 million project on Oceanview Drive in Tierra Verde.
In their suit, the Wendleks, who have yet to move into the home, said Helms left them with extensive problems that required "replacement contractors to complete the work and to remedy and repair Helms Construction's defective work."
In May 2009, a year after the Wendleks filed their lawsuit, Cohen also sued Helms. Cohen cited trouble with the $1.4 million renovation project on a $1.6 million house along the same street as the Wendleks, Oceanview Drive in Tierra Verde.
Frustrated by it all, Cohen sent Helms a note: "I am shocked to find out how basic some of the defects are, and I wonder where was the supervision, oversight, and expertise I so handsomely paid you (for) over the years?"
The complaints led investigators to delve deeper into Helms' operations. They soon determined that the contractor had been conducting business illegally.
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Here's what licensing authorities say Helms did wrong:
Although Helms listed a licensed contractor in the agreements, the actual contracts he wrote were between Signature Built by David Helms (which does not have a license to perform contracting work) and the property owners.
"By state law, you're not allowed to write a contract unless you're a licensed contractor," Fischer said. "We had no idea he was doing that."
That was until Wolbert and others began to complain and the Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services began investigating.
In December, the agency's investigation led state prosecutors to bring five misdemeanor counts of unlicensed contracting against Helms related to his contract with the Wendleks.
In March, prosecutors brought a second set of five misdemeanor counts of unlicensed contracting against Helms related to his $2.5 million contract with Alan and Elaine Levitz for a home on Sands Point Drive, also in Tierra Verde.
Helms is scheduled to appear in court May 20 on the criminal charges. The licensing board cited Helms twice for unlicensed contracting and fined him $500 plus fees for each of the citations.
Helms paid the fines March 8, but his lawyer, Knaust, said it was done with protest, and they are appealing the matter because they believe the citations and criminal charges are unfounded.
"All the permits were pulled by a duly licensed contractor," Knaust said. "I frankly have no idea what they're basing that on."
Knaust says Helms is president of both Signature Built by David Helms and Signature Built Construction Inc. Signature Built Construction is licensed and listed in the agreement.
"There's no question that Signature Built Construction was a licensed company," Knaust said.
Still, Fischer says paying the fine is essentially an admission of guilt, and their arguments are simply confusing a clear case of improperly handling the licensing or contracts — or both.
"They've done part of this right, and they've also done part of this wrong," Fischer said. "It has to be some reason why they've made the two companies so similar in name."
For Helms' clients, it could not have been more confusing. They say he portrayed himself as a licensed contractor, so they thought everything was okay.
"He's a salesman," said Roger Rovell, another lawyer who contracted with Helms. "He's a good salesman."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and become a fan of Consumer's Edge on Facebook.