Friday, September 21, 2018
News Roundup

Hey Pinellas homeowners: the county does target unlicensed contractors

Whenever homeowners were fleeced out of their money by unlicensed contractors, the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board was once considered consumers' first line of defense.

It shouldn't have been. The troubled agency was ineffective against unlicensed contractors.

But jilted homeowners have another option: The Pinellas County Consumer Protection department works with prosecutors to bring criminal charges against the worst offenders and help homeowners recoup their losses.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Lawsuit: Florida contractor fakes death to dodge angry homeowners

"We are not inspectors," said the department's operations manager, Doug Templeton. "We look for patterns to see if crimes have been committed."

Consumer protection's findings help the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office convict unlicensed contractors in court, where a judge can order them to pay back what they took.

"There is a misconception that unlicensed contractors don't pay back restitution," Assistant State Attorney Liz Jack said. "We want the public to know that we're here to help them."

Construction fraud can cost unwitting homeowners thousands of dollars for work that was never done or left incomplete — rendering a home unlivable.

The licensing board can levy fines, but can't enforce the law or even make offenders pay those fines. The agency is owed $1.8 million in uncollected fines, a big reason why it could run out of money early next year.

But the worst contractors face a far greater threat: criminal sanctions. Contracting without a license is a misdemeanor on the first offenses and a felony the second time.

Jack stressed that she's not criticizing the licensing board, but the agency's powers are limited. But the threat of criminal charges and jail time is a far stronger deterrent.

The problem of unlicensed contracting has surfaced in recent months after the Tampa Bay Times wrote a series of articles raising questions about the agency that was supposed to crack down on those contractors.

The Times found that the board treated consumers and contractors unfairly while ignoring its own rules and state law. Those travails led to the departure of longtime executive director Rodney Fischer and the launch of a grand jury investigation.

The Pinellas County Division of Inspector General is also looking at its finances and operations. The Times also detailed how Fischer refused to allow county officials in 2014 to examine its internal records.

But the agency also proved to be an impediment in another way: It handled hundreds of complaints a year, but rarely alerted other agencies about the worst cases.

It also never established any system to escalate complaints to law enforcement.

The licensing board's tracking system, which details 22,000 complaints, shows the agency referred less than 30 or so cases to the county consumer protection department going all the way back to 2001.

By comparison, prosecutors since Oct. 1 have already reviewed more than 100 construction-related complaints from consumer protection investigators, records show.

The department also offers to help consumers mediate disputes if officials determine bad acts don't reach the level of being a crime. The goal, Templeton said, is to help satisfy consumers.

"If the parties agree to work it out," he said, "it can be very effective."

The licensing board's interim executive director, Gay Lancaster, said the agency plans to refer more cases to consumer protection. She said the agency doesn't have "much teeth" to get money back to homeowners.

"I'm in favor of collaboration at every level," Lancaster said. "It should be a regular occurrence. (Consumers) are frustrated when we can't do more."

The licensing board was created by the Florida Legislature in 1973 to register contractors across the county and to crack down on unlicensed violators, does not report to county government.

But even if the agency could collect the fines it levies, the money keeps the operation running –– none flows to homeowners for restitution.

Last month, several longtime members of the agency's governing board complained that nobody in Pinellas County does anything to stop unlicensed offenders. Board members also blamed state authorities for ignoring the issue.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced this week that he plans to develop a trial program to target unlicensed violators.

A frequent criticism of law enforcement is that agencies routinely tell homeowners their complaints against unlicensed contractors must be handled in court.

Jack acknowledges the problem but said officers cannot be expected to be experts in construction laws. Her office, consumer protection and the state Division of Financial Services are better equipped to examine financial records and find crimes.

"Each office brings something different to the table," Jack said. "We don't expect patrol officers to know this stuff."

That could soon change.

Largo attorney Daniel Moody, who has practiced construction law for more than three decades, recently offered to train officers about unlicensed contracting. He pitched that idea to local agencies, including prosecutors and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Moody said homeowners get discouraged when officers tell them their disputes with unlicensed contractors are civil matters, that the criminal justice system offers no remedies.

But those officers are wrong.

"I don't want to criticize anybody," Moody said. "I want to be a part of the solution to help law enforcement know about construction-related crimes. It's difficult to understand."

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


Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process

Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a 'bully' and 'suspicious' in clashes with employees and county officials

Pinellas licensing board executive director settled hundreds of cases without getting his board's approval

EDITORIAL: Editorial: Too much power, too little openness at Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to join fight against unlicensed contractors

Football: Clearwater 34, Mitchell 7

Football: Clearwater 34, Mitchell 7

TRINITY — What at first looked like a defensive stalemate between Clearwater and Mitchell quickly turned into a rout.Clearwater had revenge on its mind Friday night after a 45-28 loss to Mitchell last year during the the regular seaso...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Football: Tampa Bay Tech 28, Hillsborough 27

Football: Tampa Bay Tech 28, Hillsborough 27

TAMPA — The decision was made as soon as Hillsborough got the ball back. Trailing by a touchdown with just over four minutes remaining against Tampa Bay Tech, the Terriers had the ball on their own 6-yard line.They hadn't been able to move the ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Football: Largo 35, Countryside 0

Football: Largo 35, Countryside 0

LARGO — The offense was relentless and merciless Friday night, but that has been the case a lot recently. Largo is scoring points in bunches and getting contributions from everyone. Add in a defense that has been smothering, as well as a special team...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Rays bounce back big after a debacle

Rays bounce back big after a debacle

TORONTO — The way the Rays played Friday — all nine innings, lesson learned — in beating the Jays 11-3 provided the best answer on how, or even if, they could rebound from the crushing loss the night before that all but ended their ...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Football: Sickles 7, Freedom 3

TAMPA — Sickles needed a goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter to escape Freedom 7-3 on Homecoming and remain in the hunt for a Class 7A, District 8 title.Gryphons coach Patrick Murphy knew that facing the Patriots would be a battle. Freedom (1-...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Football: Armwood 24, Jefferson 14

SEFFNER — Armwood is becoming accustomed to winning close games.The Hawks fended off visiting Jefferson 24-14 in a defensive battle that featured a plethora of holding penalties in the second half.Armwood (3-1) earned two rushing touchdowns from juni...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Football: Plant 44, Gaither 34

TAMPA — Seventy-eight points. Eight hundred and 40 yards in total offense. Five players surpassing the century mark in yardage.When the game was over Friday, Plant had the edge in every category — including the scoreboard as the Panthers (3-1) opened...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Football: Robinson 28, Blake 25

TAMPA — Nevermind that Blake scored a go-ahead touchdown with 87 seconds left in the game.Forgive him, but part of Robinson junior Lateef Al-Shaa’ir was hoping it would happen just so it would set up a comeback.And it did.With 24 seconds left in the ...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Football: St. Petersburg 23, Gibbs 6

ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg’s Aumhryaun Brown’s two touchdowns helped overcome the ejection of quarterback Tonio Shavers as the Green Devils cruised to a 23-6 win against Gibbs on Friday.As time expired during the first half, with the Green Devil...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Football: Plant City 24, East Bay 7

GIBSONTON — Plant City’s high-powered passing game gets most of the attention. But the Raiders’ defense is just as responsible for the team’s unbeaten start.In Plant City’s 24-7 road victory against East Bay in Class 7A, District 9 on Friday, the def...
Updated: 3 hours ago