TAMPA — The contractor in the cowboy hat promised David and Lindsay Cooke that he could renovate their house within budget and on time.
For $28,500, he told the couple, he would start in August and convert their carport into a master suite by October, well before Lindsay was to deliver the couple's first child, a baby girl.
Lindsay gave birth to Enya on Dec. 16. But the project still isn't finished. The contractor and foreman have quit. Lawsuits are pending and bills are mounting.
The Cookes now wish they had known that the two men hired to get their job done were major figures in two of Hillsborough County's best-known cases of public corruption.
Former County Commissioner Charlie Bean, the contractor, served four months in prison after pleading guilty to federal bribery charges in the 1980s. Former Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake, the foreman, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2004 after being convicted of conspiracy and more than two dozen counts of bribery.
"It's unbelievable,'' said a still incredulous David Cooke. "We didn't know who these guys were until December. What are the chances that they would be working together? And at our house?"
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The Cookes are in a bind in part because of a state law that favors contractors over homeowners in disputes such as this.
But the couple's home also is a test case for a budding partnership formed in September, when LaBrake was transferred from prison to a halfway house in Tampa. He'll stay there until March as he serves out the remainder of his sentence. A prisons spokesman said LaBrake declined to comment for this story.
LaBrake was found guilty for his role in a conspiracy that involved a trade of city contracts in exchange for favors in the construction of his dream house in South Tampa. Bean felt the case was weak and overshadowed the good LaBrake had done for Tampa's affordable housing.
So Bean wanted to give LaBrake a job to help him adjust to life after prison. Also, Bean's grown sons aren't going to take over his business, and, at 68, he's getting too old to continue. Bean said he's grooming LaBrake to take over his contracting company.
The Cookes, he said, are the real troublemakers here.
"She's impossible," Bean said of Lindsay.
But the Cookes aren't the only homeowners to have clashed with Bean.
Nearly 10 years ago, Amy Godlewski filed a complaint against Bean after his work on her roof left her with a leaking mess. Her complaint eventually led to the county suspending Bean's license for five years.
"I was so glad he wouldn't have the opportunity to do this to anyone else," Godlewski said. "And here we are. Part Two.''
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David Cooke remembers the first time he met Bean. He was a bear of a man, friendly, folksy, and sporting a cowboy hat.
"He seemed like this nice old man," Cooke said. "I really liked him."
It wasn't until October that the couple knew they had a major problem.
Work wasn't getting done, or wasn't what they wanted. Most distressing: Subcontractors were complaining they weren't getting paid.
The Cookes couldn't understand what Bean was doing with the $23,000 they had paid him.
The couple's resources aren't limitless. He's a 36-year-old sales manager for a high-tech company. She's a 31-year-old database administrator. They started to suspect that Bean and LaBrake were squeezing them, betting they would back down from a fight.
"They knew our circumstances," Lindsay Cooke said.
She said she gave LaBrake an ultimatum Dec. 2, two days before her due date. Finish the job or don't get paid. LaBrake quit, saying that would be impossible without more money.
The Cookes said LaBrake warned them that contractors would file liens on their house.
In Florida, contractors who aren't paid for their work can file a lien on a house and begin foreclosure proceedings. Records kept by the Cookes show they paid Bean.
But another part of the law allows subcontractors — who don't have any legal agreement with the homeowner — to also file liens if the contractor doesn't pay them. The Cookes didn't know they needed to get waivers from the subcontractors. Now they might have to pay a second time for services and materials.
Homeowners frequently fall through this loophole, said Peggy Bailey, a consumer advocate who sits on Florida's Construction Industry Licensing Board.
"The law is so complex and technical that you need a lawyer before you pay a contractor," said Bailey, whose opinion doesn't represent the view of the state board. "Often homeowners end up paying twice for work done on their house: Once when they pay the contractor. Twice when they pay to remove any liens on their house. How bizarre is that?"
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Jack Staller, a plumber, filed a lien on the Cookes' house the day LaBrake quit.
"I was pretty angry," said Staller, who said he won't work for Bean again because he stiffed him out of $3,000.
But instead of seeking damages from Bean, Staller's lien is against the Cookes.
"That's the way Florida law is," Staller said. "I don't feel any resentment toward the Cookes, that's just the way Bean does business. If I were them, I'd feel I was on the short end of things."
Another subcontractor refused to file a lien against the Cookes because he felt they were being exploited.
Richard Nazaro said he spent $4,000 to supply plumbing materials and labor. Nazaro is an old friend of LaBrake's, or at least he was before this month. That's when LaBrake told him he wasn't getting reimbursed. Nazaro said LaBrake told him to file a lien on the house if he wanted to get paid.
"You have a pregnant girl who is ready to have a baby, and the only way I can get my money back is to put a lien on their house?" Nazaro said. "I couldn't do that."
Bean confirms he had LaBrake tell Nazaro to put a lien on the house. Bean said he didn't want to pay Nazaro or Staller because they charged too much.
The Cookes caused the problems because they kept changing plans, Bean said. He calls Lindsay Cooke the worst client he's ever had.
Bean said much the same thing in 2000, when his clients were Amy and Ronald Godlewski. They hired him to expand their home in 1998. Bean said they meddled too much, changing plans after they were approved.
"We were about 26 and had no idea what we were doing," said Amy Godlewski. "He was this father figure who conveyed this sense of authority. He was smooth."
Bean would go weeks without working on the house, she said. Then the roof he was fixing leaked during a rainstorm. Then they paid him $2,500 for kitchen cabinets that were never installed. Subcontractors weren't paid and at least one filed a lien on their house.
So the Godlewskis filed a complaint against Bean. It led to the five-year suspension of his license.
"Yes, he lost his license, but we ended up paying so much more for this project,'' Amy Godlewski said. ''Now he's working again, so really, what did it accomplish?"
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On Dec. 18, the Cookes brought their baby to their unfinished home. They spoke with a lawyer who declined to take their case. Meanwhile, Bean hired an attorney from one of Tampa's most powerful law firms, Carlton Fields.
"It's not like we have a lot of connections in town," David Cooke said. "I'm very worried. We're coming home with a baby and we have a lien on the house. Foreclosure could start soon. I don't know what to do next."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or firstname.lastname@example.org