TAMPA — It is an enticing vision:
A massive ethanol plant, capable of churning out 200 million gallons of fuel each year and creating more than 400 jobs, settling in eastern Hillsborough County. And private investors picking up the $325 million cost.
County officials loved the idea. So much, in fact, that the first agency the developers asked for permits, Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission, said it would work to speed up the process.
But there are a few things the people behind the project aren't saying.
The top officer in the company has served time in prison for selling cocaine. His head contractor was recently arrested on felony theft charges connected to unfinished construction projects.
John Jones, 36, was led away in handcuffs from a Polk County contractors licensing board meeting in February, accused of bilking subcontractors and citizens out of more than $100,000 and contracting without a license for about a year.
Jones also has numerous complaints filed against him with the state that accuse him of doing shoddy and incomplete jobs.
One of the complaints came from U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, who hired Jones in 2005 to build a simple pole barn in his back yard. He said he had to spend more than $50,000 to fix what he calls "a disaster."
"It was embarrassing to me that it even happened," Ross told the St. Petersburg Times. "People like John Jones need to be put out of business."
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Jones says he's misunderstood, and that the accusations against him are unfounded. Carlos Macho, 46, the company president who spent six months behind bars for drug sales in the late 1980s, said he has full confidence in his partner.
Late last year, Macho asked Jones, head of Lakeland-based Construction Tradition Group, to help build a massive ethanol plant, called Sunshine Way Ethanol, on U.S. 41 in Gibsonton.
The corn would come from farmers hit hard by recent winter cold snaps. The waste by-products would be recycled and sold off as cattle feed.
Macho said the $325 million cost to build the plant will be covered by private investors. He declined to name any. But "it's a done deal,'' he said. "It's there."
He said he hopes to break ground in the next few months. A county permit to begin excavating the property, requested by Hung Mai, an engineer with Jones' company who also serves on the Hillsborough County planning commission, was approved in December.
Meanwhile, Jones awaits trial on charges of theft, contracting without a license and misapplying construction funds, which could carry a sentence of up to 47 years.
He's already on probation with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation because officials had concerns about his financial stability, said Sandi Copes, the department's spokeswoman. The probation is slated to last two years, or until he can show the construction licensing board that his credit score has risen to at least 660.
The DBPR is pursuing its own case against Jones, charging him with gross negligence, abandoning a construction project, and operating without proper registration, stemming from a 2009 home renovation in Lakeland, Copes said.
Rick Muratti, the attorney for Hillsborough's environmental protection commission, said work complaints and criminal backgrounds aren't typically considered when issuing permits to a corporation.
What's important, Muratti said, is that the corporation can follow through with environmental requirements.
Says Jones: "I know it's all bad right now. It sounds like I'm just a horrible guy." But he insists things aren't as bad as they seem.
He says the people who filed complaints against him were friends who "got in a pinch and simply couldn't pay no more." He says they owe him money, but he has never pursued legal action because "I'm just not the type of person to go out and sue people."
Those who say they were victimized don't believe he'll ever pay a dime. Several scoff at Jones' claim that they were friends, saying they found him through Realtors, mutual friends or Jones' own solicitation.
And they're incredulous that anyone would trust him again.
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Ross chose Jones to build his backyard barn in 2005 after his wife deemed him "a nice guy."
The plan was to build a 45-foot by 24-foot structure with wooden poles, a shingled roof and capability for a 50-amp electrical system on a concrete pad. Ross planned to park his motor home there. It was supposed to cost $30,000.
Ross said he doled out more than $74,000 to Jones before realizing the project was falling apart. Jones hadn't obtained building inspections, Ross said, and "structurally, he didn't know what he was doing."
Ross fired Jones and hired an engineer to re-do it. By the time it was done, he said he had spent about $130,000.
Ross filed a complaint with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, but he said it never went anywhere.
"You would think that for consumer protection services they would have done something," Ross said. "We've chalked it up as a learning experience and moved on."
Cathy Lerner, who works for the Polk County School Board, can't move on.
She said she paid Jones more than $60,0000 in 2009 for an addition on the home she's owned for more than 30 years. The project was abandoned.
Polk investigators say Jones wasn't operating under a licensed company at the time.
Now, about a year later, Lerner's home remains gutted — a wooden skeleton with water leaking through the ceiling. No walls, no floor, no electricity.
Lerner stays overnight with friends. But she also spends a great deal of time in her makeshift living room, consisting of a couple of folding chairs and a plastic table.
"He stole my house," Lerner said. "The man stole my life."
She filed complaints with the state, the county licensing board and the city of Lakeland. None has offered a resolution.
While working on Lerner's home, Jones began another project on a commercial boiler supplier's property in Bartow.
Debbie and Roger Sundean, owners of Firstech Services, said they gave Jones almost $200,000 to build a steel building with parking, landscaping and a water retention area.
After about seven months, the Sundeans said all they had was a concrete slab with steel rods around it and some landscaping. That, plus lien notices from subcontractors who hadn't been paid.
"I want him in jail," said Roger Sundean, a mechanical contractor. "This guy gives every contractor a bad name."
According to Polk investigators, by the time he met Lerner and the Sundeans, Jones already had abandoned remodeling projects on a Lakeland Italian restaurant, a Bartow pizza place and a home construction project in Winter Haven.
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The ethanol plant being pushed in Gibsonton isn't Jones' first involvement with alternative fuels.
In 2007, Jones began work on a proposed biodiesel plant in Dundee, said Craig Shaver, who deserted the project after his City Council struck it down.
Shaver said he gave Jones about $80,000 to demolish a structure, pour a concrete slab and erect a steel building on his U.S. 27 S property.
According to the complaint Shaver filed with the state, Jones never returned the money after he couldn't secure project permits.
The case was dismissed, deemed "civil in nature."
Shaver hasn't let it go.
"The more dealings I had with him, the more I realized he was just lying. Everything he said was a lie," Shaver said. "I can only imagine what he's telling these people with this ethanol plant."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.