Friday, October 19, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas sheriff’s team follows signs on hunt for unlicensed contractors

Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy Tony DeAngelo spied the two roofers pulling metal panels from a trailer and slowly rolled by. He parked around the corner from the Redington Beach home and keyed in their license plate.

It took the 34-year deputy about a minute to find that the roofing company was licensed in Pinellas. So he drove off to continue his search.

This was no ordinary patrol.

DeAngelo is part of the newly formed Construction Licensing Investigative Unit of the Sheriff’s Office. While other deputies spend their days looking for speeders, burglars or drug dealers, DeAngelo and his team hunt for a specific type of lawbreaker: unlicensed contractors.

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The deputies scour county streets looking for red flags: work vehicles with no company name or license number displayed, or those with out-of-state tags or ones that are backed into driveways to obscure their plates. He shares those signs with homeowners, too, so they don’t fall victim to predators.

"It’s a whole new thing," said DeAngelo, 55, about the unit’s work. "It’s about enforcement. It’s about educating homeowners. This is about protecting the public."

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri started the six-month pilot program in August in response to growing public outcry about a rampant problem: scam artists who show up at people’s doors promising cut-rate deals on home repairs but delivering shoddy workmanship instead or failing to complete the job after accepting up-front payments.

For years that policing fell to an obscure government agency known as the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. But a series of Tampa Bay Times stories has documented how the agency lacked accountability, offered uneven enforcement, dismissed complaints without explanation and failed to collect nearly $2 million in fines, offering little deterrent to bad contractors.

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It’s executive director has since resigned. And the state legislature is considering several proposals to reform the board.

In the meantime, Gualtieri created his special investigative unit to go after what he has described as "thieves" and "scammers."

Two weeks ago, deputies conducted a predawn roundup to arrest 20 contractors working without licenses or workers’ compensation insurance.

The shoe leather work to identify them falls to the team that includes DeAngelo, who said he is encouraged that homeowners and contractors are helping stop the scofflaws. As a result of the sheriff’s intervention, residents and licensed contractors are now inundating deputies with telephone tips and through the county’s SeeClickFix mobile app.

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The unlicensed work they have uncovered runs the gamut, from window repairs to $100,000 home remodeling projects.

"We’re not dealing with minor and inconsequential work," DeAngelo said during a patrol last week. "With the public locking in, we can’t lose. We’re working in the best interests of the community."

Doing construction work without a license is a misdemeanor for the first offense and a felony the second time. Violators can also face a felony charge of workers’ compensation fraud. Florida law requires contractors in the construction industry to carry the insurance. Without it, contractors can lower prices and steal business from licensed and insured businesses.

DeAngelo drove down dozens of streets in beach communities during his recent patrol. In addition to unlabeled vehicles, he looks for saw horses standing in yards, ladders propped against houses or pickups overflowing with tools and equipment. He said he often finds that licensed contractors drive better-maintained vehicles.

While scanning streets, DeAngelo waved at residents walking dogs and those doing yard work and crossing corners.

But he also checked license plates of dozens of contractors. In a marked sport utility vehicle, DeAngelo said he doesn’t want to jump out to disrupt workers and worry homeowners. Instead, he prefers to stop around the corner and return if he finds a problem.

"It looks like I’m just being diligent in patrolling," DeAngelo said.

He said he always questions contractors if a company is not listed in the county’s licensing database and will make crews stop working. He has arrested some.

In addition, DeAngelo said he educates homeowners about the dangers of unlicensed contractors. Some residents don’t know how to check licenses and were surprised to learn they were in the process of possibly being duped, he said.

During last week’s search, DeAngelo ignored commercial vehicles with large signs that listed a company name and a license number. An administrative law requires contractors to display the information or face a $143 civil fine. DeAngelo’s unit focuses on criminal violations, not minor civil infractions.

After checking more than a dozen vehicles in condo complexes in St. Pete Beach, DeAngelo spotted a blue panel truck without a company name or license number displayed. Three men working on a carport didn’t pay attention when DeAngelo drove past.

A computer check showed that Largo-based Aluminum Craftsmen owned the vehicle. DeAngelo could have issued a civil fine to the licensed company but said, "I have bigger fish to catch."

Issuing such citations remains the work of the Construction Licensing Board. Records show Aluminum Craftsmen on 66th Street N in Largo is operated by Tom Tafelski.

Tafelski is the longtime vice chairman of the licensing board and has sat on panels that issue fines to contractors for violations, including for lack of signs.

Tafelski did not respond to a request for comment.

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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