Sunday, June 17, 2018
News Roundup

Times investigation: Pinellas County construction agency steered work to board member

LARGO — Daphne Reuter complained to the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board in 2012 after part of her new $3,800 roof collapsed.

The agency, set up to protect consumers against bad contractors, told Reuter it needed more information to figure out what happened. In a letter, an agency official offered the St. Petersburg homeowner some advice to help push her case forward:

Hire Thomas Tafelski of Thomas Inspection Services to prepare a detailed report of the problems.

The letter didn't mention that Tafelski was the agency's vice chairman and confidant of executive director Rodney Fischer.

"That's convenient," Reuter chuckled after the Tampa Bay Times told her about Tafelski's connection to the agency.

Referrals like that could also land agency officials in investigators' crosshairs.

Recommending a board member for work risks violating state laws that prohibit government officials from using their positions to secure special privileges for themselves or others, experts said.

The Times has found that Fischer and other licensing board officials steered inspection work to Tafelski at least seven times between 2011 and 2015. The referrals earned him thousands of dollars, including $3,575 to inspect a building for the city of Pinellas Park and $1,460 from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to help inspect homes linked to a ring of unlicensed roofers, records show.

Like Reuter, the other homeowners and contractors who spoke to the Times said they weren't told that Tafelski was connected to the agency. Several, when they found out, felt duped; one homeowner called it a "rip-off."

What's more, Tafelski completed inspections on Fischer's private properties at least 10 times, some at discounted prices. To an outsider, that could look like Fischer steered home­owners and contractors to Tafelski in return for favorable pricing on his private inspections, even if the men never intended it that way, said Bill Loughery, a former chief assistant prosecutor for Pinellas and Pasco counties.

"Picking favorites . . . creates the potential appearance that something is amiss," Loughery said. "Anybody with any sense would wonder about that."

Tampa lawyer Todd Foster, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent, said referring work to a board member was a "bad practice."

"Anytime you have favors being done between insiders, it raises questions of insider dealings," he said.

Fischer resigned in January amid controversy after Times stories detailed the agency's lax approach to disciplining contractors, and how Fischer clashed with employees and butted heads with county officials. A grand jury is now investigating. For this article, Fischer did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Nor did his lawyer.

Anne Maddox, now the administrative manager, sent the letter to Reuter in 2012 that said the agency had recommended Tafelski "previously." She, however, would not tell the Times how often work was steered his way.

She said she did what Fischer told her to do.

"I followed orders," she said.

Tafelski said he was not always aware that Fischer or other agency officials had recommended that a homeowner hire him. He added that there was nothing wrong or unusual about the agency passing along possible clients to board members.

"I work to serve clients. That is it. There is no more to it," said Tafelski, a 67-year-old builder, roofer, aluminum contractor and home inspector. "I've never paid a perk to anybody."

• • •

St. Petersburg homeowner Betty Hadaway felt misled and ripped off after her experience with Tafelski and the licensing board.

In 2012, she and her husband, Jim, agreed to pay $7,650 for a new asphalt driveway. Soon after it was installed, the surface began to crack and crumble, records show.

The Hadaways argued with the contractor for months, refusing to pay the remaining $3,800 until the driveway was fixed. Betty Hadaway eventually filed a complaint with the licensing board.

Fischer dismissed the complaint and told the Hadaways that the agency hadn't found any code violations with the driveway.

But he offered a lifeline.

"We would be happy to reopen the matter if we receive an inspection report from an independent licensed contractor stating that specific code violations exist," Fischer wrote in a letter.

The Hadaways didn't know any inspectors, so they drove to the licensing board. Betty Hadaway said she and her husband met with Fischer and Maddox, who provided the name of only one inspector, Thomas Tafelski.

The couple paid Tafelski $475 on May 1, 2013, records show.

The following month, Tafelski determined the contractor did not install the driveway in a "workmanlike manner," according to his four-page report. But it didn't help the Hadaways. The agency would not reopen the complaint.

"This case is closed," Fischer told the Hadaways in another letter

Like the Hadaways, none of the homeowners who spoke to the Times thought the inspection helped them with the licensing board. Betty Hadaway said she only learned that Tafelski served as the licensing board's vice chairman when she read a Times story in January.

She called it a "rip-off."

"I was shocked. I had no idea. Fischer and Maddox never told us," Hadaway said. "We lost $475. Tafelski was the only one who got something out of this."

• • •

A government agency referring work to a member of its board reeks of favoritism, experts said. Playing favorites erodes trust in the agency and raises doubts about whether it can adequately perform the rest of its mission.

Think of it this way: How would you feel about a local police chief who consistently referred burglary victims to his brother's alarm installation company?

That's why what the licensing board appears to be doing is not the same as your neighbor recommending a plumber or a carpenter, said Richard A. Harrison, an adjunct professor at Stetson University College of Law and an expert on government law.

"If you are working in a public position, you are supposed to be doing your public job, not using that position to help benefit someone else," Harrison said. "That is the opposite of what government is supposed to do."

Loughery, the former prosecutor, added that "it just smells bad" if the agency also didn't tell homeowners and others that Tafelski sat on the agency's board.

Contractor Robert Hughes and a Pinellas County sheriff's detective said that's exactly what happened to them.

The agency, Hughes said, suggested that he hire Tafelski in 2012 after a homeowner accused him of improperly installing windows. Maddox asked Hughes in an email to pay Tafelski's inspection fee. She sent more than a dozen emails to arrange the inspection and collect payment, records show.

Hughes, who paid $395 for the inspection, told the Times that he did not know Tafelski was the board's vice chairman.

"He was recommended by the board to do the inspection," said Hughes, who later settled the window dispute. "Maddox said they had an inspector."

In a written statement to the Times, Tafelski said Fischer asked him to inspect the windows.

"The (homeowner) was never charged anything," Tafelski said. "It is important to note that this effort to assist the consumer was made at NO cost to her."

In 2014, a Pinellas County sheriff's detective investigating a ring of unlicensed roofers needed a home inspector to calculate the damage to six homes. When the detective visited the agency, he was given only Tafelski's name and was not told that he was a board member, said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

The records show Tafelski collected $1,460 for the six inspections.

In another case, Fischer asked Tafelski to inspect the home of Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel after her husband had filed a complaint in 2013 about their new roof leaking.

Tafelski examined the roof and determined the roofer did not cause the leaks, records show. Fischer closed the case.

Days later, Seel said, Tafelski came to her door and asked for $250 for the inspection. The request surprised her because she didn't hire him and never agreed to cover his costs, she said.

"Tom Tafelski came by and said we owed him money," Seel recalled. "To the best of my records, he didn't send me an invoice. I didn't know if he was there representing the licensing board or Thomas Inspection."

Tafelski would not comment on the Seel case.

• • •

Fischer hired Tafelski at least 10 times to perform multiple inspections or complete inspection reports on his private properties from 2011 to 2016, the Times found after a review of emails sent between Fischer and Tafelski.

Those inspections, combined with the discounts Fischer received, could leave the impression that Fischer was receiving a financial benefit from referring the other jobs to Tafelski, experts said.

In 2011, for instance, an insurance company wouldn't renew policies on four of Fischer's properties. Fischer wanted the inspections "as quickly as possible," he said in an email.

Tafelski replied that he typically charged $150 for a wind-mitigation inspection.

"For you I will do the 4 of them for a total of $450," Tafelski wrote.

In 2012, Fischer needed inspections on his daughter's home and three rental properties. Tafelski said he typically charged $100 for those inspections but would give Fischer a "professional discount" and charge $250, according to an invoice.

In 2014, Fischer asked Tafelski to inspect water leaks at his daughter's home. Tafelski later sent Fischer a summary of the problems, but the email did not contain a price or invoice.

In 2015, Tafelski completed extensive reports to show he examined a home's electrical system, roof, plumbing and heating and cooling systems.

"Thanks a lot Tom," Fischer replied. "(I) hate insurance companies."

Public officials should avoid even the appearance that they are leveraging their position to receive discounted or free work, said Robert O'Neill, the former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

"Anytime a public official makes any appearance of sending work to someone, it is certainly a problem," said O'Neill, who stressed it was too soon to pass judgment on what happened. "It's the type of thing that investigators would look at."

Their friendship, which the emails also showcase, could work against them, too, said Loughery.

The men discussed scalloping in Hernando County and treatments for back pain. Tafelski attached family photos to one email. Fischer received an invite to Tafelski's home on the Weeki Wachee River.

In 2012, Fischer emailed Tafelski two lewd photos of women. One message about an upcoming river trip to a Cherokee Indian settlement included a photo of a naked Native American woman with the caption, "Her name is UCAN TUCHUM."

"It's a worse situation if they are buddies," said Loughery, the former prosecutor. "It deepens the suspicions about what is going on, even if something isn't."

• • •

Depending on who's talking, the agency's 21-person board is either a tight-knit group of professionals or a bunch of good old boys.

Many members, especially the 14 contractors, have known each other, and Fischer, for decades. They've run businesses together and belong to many of the same trade organizations.

Earlier this year, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe questioned why the board was so reluctant to hire an outsider as interim executive director after Fischer resigned.

"I was dumbfounded," McCabe said, when he launched the grand jury investigation in February. "It made me think that they think it's a club and not a public agency."

Tafelski's ties to a board member helped land him the $3,575 contract from Pinellas Park, the Times found.

Pinellas Park assistant city manager Patrick Murphy — a private contractor before joining the city — had served alongside Tafelski on the board for more than a decade.

In May 2015, the city needed an inspection of a 65,000-square-foot building to house staffers. Shannon Coughlin, the city employee who set up the inspection, told the Times that Murphy directed her to Tafelski.

"I don't recall being told to consider anybody else," she said.

In a short interview, Murphy confirmed that he directed Coughlin to Tafelski.

"We can hire anybody we want under $5,000. Tom is the best inspector," he said, declining further comment.

Two St. Petersburg homeowners told the Times that employees in the city building department referred them to Tafelski, too.

Sally McCauley said an employee told her to hire Tafelski after her pool failed multiple inspections. She said she paid Tafelski $500 earlier this year. Her pool has yet to pass inspection.

Vicki Penne said a city official also referred her to Tafelski after her new $4,600 roof kept failing city inspections. Frustrated, Penne said she asked the employee what she could do to ensure that all the violations had been found and that the roof would meet city codes.

The official, Penne said, "told me to hire Thomas Inspection."

"The City of St. Pete has referred me to assist an owner with a problem," Tafelski told the licensing board in a 2014 email asking about Penne's case.

Penne paid Tafelski $770.

"It did not help me one bit," she said.

Rick Dunn, who runs the city building department, has served on the licensing board since 2004 and is now the interim chairman. He told the Times in April that he knew nothing about the licensing board sending work to Tafelski or any other board members. He added that city employees wouldn't do it, either.

"I wouldn't condone that," Dunn said. "Employees should not do that."

Tafelski told the Times that the licensing board often steered work to electricians, plumbers and other contractors.

"Anytime somebody had a problem, it was sent to someone with a speciality like electrical or mechanical or something else," he said. "We have done this for over 20 years."

Four other contractors on the board who spoke to the Times said that they never received referrals from Fischer or the agency. And all seven public employees on the board said the agency should not be referring work to board members.

"That would go against everything you stood for," said Safety Harbor building official Danny Sandlin, echoing what the other six public officials told the Times. "This is news to me."

Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

About the reporting

For this article, the Tampa Bay Times interviewed more than 35 people, reviewed 750 of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board's paper files and read 4,000 emails.

The Times initially asked for all of executive director Rodney Fischer's emails from 2012 to the beginning 2017 to help determine how many times he or any other licensing board official referred work to other board members or other businesses. The agency said it would cost $100,000 for it to review the 500,000 emails and redact personal information. The Times then limited its request to just the emails between Fischer, Maddox and Tafelski.

During the investigation, the Times also found that the agency threw away hundreds of recent paper files, making it hard to determine whether more work was steered to Tafelski or other board members.

* * *

The investigation so far

A series of Tampa Bay Times reports raised questions about how a lack of oversight at the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board contributed to a fast and loose approach when it handled complaints against contractors.

Executive director Rodney Fischer stepped down Jan. 31 after a Times report about how he treated residents and disciplined contractors.

The Times has also reported that the agency is running out of money as fines and citations dry up. Another Times report detailed Fischer's controversial practice of meeting privately with contractors to deal with fines and disciplinary matters, without telling the consumers who filed the complaints.

A grand jury is now investigating, and the Pinellas County Office of the Inspector General is examining the agency's finances and operations.

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