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Sinkhole work prompts Hernando County inquiry

SPRING HILL — When Phyllis House visited the sinkhole house she had purchased in Lake in the Woods, she was startled by what she did not see.

It was June 2009, and the sinkhole repair contractor, Click's Construction, had begun its work. But the heavy equipment and supplies that she knew were needed for the job were nowhere to be found. That spoke volumes to House, someone who was in the business of buying and selling sinkhole homes.

It was the beginning of a nightmare for House that has lasted more than a year. After complaints were filed and investigated, Click's Construction vice president Lorie Contorno was arrested in October on a charge of organized fraud over $50,000, a first-degree felony.

Sheriff's officials also are seeking Carl Click, the owner of the business, who will face a similar charge, according to Hernando County sheriff's Detective Bill Horvath.

Investigations also are under way in Pinellas County and with other agencies, House said.

When House saw that work at her home in Spring Hill was not proceeding as expected, she questioned Robert Contorno, the company's representative on site. He assured her that there was a new technology that was being used to fix the sliding and shifting of the house's foundation. She told him that wasn't the method she hired him to use.

For weeks, she had others checking on the house. The 15 to 16 truckloads of grout needed to shore up the home never arrived. Instead, two trucks visited the site, carrying just enough concrete to build a wall that the homeowners association never would have approved, had it known about it beforehand, House said.

It remains unclear what work was completed. But House, who now lives in the home, said the loud popping and cracking noises she hears tell her the house never was fixed.

She said tracking down the company's officials and unearthing problems they've had in other places has become her mission — one she hopes can end soon.

"I just want to get back to work,'' she said.

House blames Hernando County's building department for signing off on work it should not have approved. Lorie Contorno's charge was based on her signing documents as if she were the engineer of record, Horvath said.

For sinkhole repairs, an engineer's job at the beginning of a project is to design a fix. Then, at the end of the project, an engineer must sign and seal a document assuring that the fix was completed as designed.

Horvath said there were several paperwork problems. In one document, a Click's Construction representative whited out a portion of the form stating that the signing engineer was state certified; on another, the person covered up the certification number.

On another, Lorie Contorno used her Pasco County occupational license number as her state engineer's certification number.

"Should we have caught it? Yes, we should have caught it,'' said Ron Pianta, Hernando County director of land services.

Pianta said that as soon as the county got the complaint, the field inspector examined other permit files pulled by Click's Construction. He found nine permits with questionable paperwork.

Ultimately, the county issued seven citations, and the cases went to a special master in February. There, Click's Construction was found guilty and assessed $2,675 in fines, which have been paid. The company also was ordered to complete the work and hire an engineer to check back on the questionable projects, said Jodi Singer, the county's development services operations manager.

That work has not been completed yet.

The county remains in contact with the engineer doing the final tasks. Meanwhile, the status of Click's Construction is unknown. A phone number listed for the firm has been disconnected. Corporate records show the company is based in Vero Beach, but Internet records also show there was an office in Holiday at one point. Company officials have allowed the corporation to become inactive, according to the Florida secretary of state's website.

Hernando County has Click's Construction listed "on hold,'' which means the firm cannot pull any additional permits in the county.

Singer said the case should be a reminder to people to check out contractors they hire to make sure the companies have the expertise they advertise. That should include looking into references and checking with state licensing authorities.

House said she checked into Click's but found nothing in public records that would hint at the number of problems she would encounter. Her daughter, who has a home in Wellington at Seven Hills, also did business with Click's. It was for work at her home that Lorie Contorno signed as a licensed engineer, even though she has no engineering license.

Neither Robert nor Lorie Contorno has any related licenses listed with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Click is listed as being delinquent and inactive as a general contractor and has at least one unresolved complaint against his license.

Horvath said he hopes that Click will be found soon, along with anyone else implicated in the case.

"It really burns me up,'' he said. "People like this, they're messing with your most prized possession.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Sinkhole work prompts Hernando County inquiry 11/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 8:16pm]
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