Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Public safety

Pinellas deputies go door-to-door at dawn to arrest unlicensed contractors

For years, licensed contractors in Pinellas County have yearned for law enforcement to target unlicensed roofers, painters and others in the construction trades who perform shoddy work and swindle money from homeowners.

Deputies fulfilled that wish on Tuesday.

At 5 a.m., they began pounding on doors in a roundup of contractors accused of working without licences and workers’ compensation insurance.

The arrests came two months after Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri started a pilot program to help the floundering Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board crack down on unlicensed violators. Gualtieri called it troubling and disturbing that the men had taken thousands of dollars from residents.

"They’re thieves. They’re scammers," Gualtieri said Tuesday. "They’re ripping people off."

PREVIOUS: Pinellas sheriff steps in to start policing contractors

The "Operation Nailed" sweep targeted 20 men on Tuesday. Deputies arrested 11 of them early Tuesday and one turned himself in Tuesday night. More arrests are expected over the next few days.

The operation stunned some of the contractors, who have worked for years without fear of stiff penalties.

"I’m actually surprised anybody showed up," said Randolph Ronchi, 31, after being handcuffed and seated in a transport van.

All 20 of the men faced at least one charge of contracting without a license, a misdemeanor on the first offenses and a felony the second time. Nineteen also faced a felony charge of workers’ compensation fraud. Florida law requires contractors in the construction industry to carry the insurance. Without it, violators can lower prices and steal business from licensed and insured contractors.

Seven of the men faced a felony grand theft charge, including Richard Niger, who authorities accused of duping 90-year-old Darlene Anderson.

Anderson contracted with Niger for $26,125 to paint, repair plaster and screen a pool enclosure. Not only did Niger fail to complete the work, he told Anderson that he had ruined her $3,500 check in a washing machine and asked her to write another, authorities said. Anderson wrote a second check, and Niger cashed both.

Niger, 52, facing a misdemeanor charge of unlicensed contracting and felony charges of workers’ compensation fraud and grand theft of a person over 65, turned himself in Tuesday night, Gualtieri said.

Anderson said in an interview Tuesday that she didn’t realize Niger duped her until a bank statement showed he cashed both checks. She hopes he faces stiff consequences.

"If he can’t do it to anyone else, that is what I would like to see," she said. "I’d like to see him pay for what he has done."

PREVIOUS: Pinellas licensing board executive director settled hundreds of cases without getting his board’s approval

In Pinellas County, it’s the construction licensing board’s job to crack down on unlicensed contractors and protect property owners. The agency, however, doesn’t have police powers; its inspectors can only fine contractors.

The agency has come under intense scrutiny this year since a series of Tampa Bay Times stories detailed how its leaders and staff lacked accountability, disregarded rules and raised concerns about whether it treated consumers and contractors fairly.

In recent months, the agency has been criticized for failing to deter violators and hasn’t been able to collect more than $1.8 million in unpaid fines. In May, the agency’s governing board said unlicensed contracting was out of control in Pinellas. It questioned why Pinellas deputies hadn’t targeted unlicensed contractors like a dedicated unit in Hillsborough County.

At that time, Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times that the board’s former executive director Rodney Fischer had never asked for help. Gualtieri said he was eager to assess the scope of the problem. On Tuesday, he said deputies have started more than 220 investigations since August.

"It’s a new day. It’s a new era," Gualtieri said. "We will continue to enforce the criminal laws of this state to prevent these predatory practices by unlicensed contractors in Pinellas County."

PREVIOUS: Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a ‘bully’ and ‘suspicious’ in clashes with employees and county officials

A licensing board database shows that some violators arrested Tuesday have multiple citations and unpaid fines going back years. The violators considered the fines a cost of doing business and they didn’t deter them from preying on homeowners, Gualtieri said. He warned that more arrests and investigations are coming.

Pinellas County Commission chair Janet Long praised Gualtieri for taking action to protect residents.

"It’s just the tip of the iceberg," Long said. "It’s a sign that something needs to be addressed."

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

     
   
Comments

Deputies: Masked shooter wounds Dunedin woman in home invasion

DUNEDIN — Deputies are searching for a black-clad gunman who shot and wounded an 18-year-old woman during a home invasion attack Wednesday, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.The shooting was reported at about 1:03 p.m. at 1144 New Yor...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Hernando deputies: Cave diver fails to resurface at the Eagle’s Nest

Hernando deputies: Cave diver fails to resurface at the Eagle’s Nest

WEEKI WACHEE — A diver exploring the Eagle’s Nest, a notoriously dangerous underwater cave, failed to resurface from a Wednesday night dive, according to the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.The person was free diving, according to the Sheriff’s Offi...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Pinellas deputies: Man charged with pregnant woman’s murder injures jail inmate

Pinellas deputies: Man charged with pregnant woman’s murder injures jail inmate

LARGO — The man accused of fatally shooting a pregnant woman while she was riding home from church with her family last year now faces allegations that he assaulted a jail inmate who has since died.Charles G. Allen Jr., 41, already faces two counts o...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Video shows a Polk County store clerk shooting a man who was stealing Natural Ice beer

Video shows a Polk County store clerk shooting a man who was stealing Natural Ice beer

A Lakeland convenience store clerk has been charged with attempted second-degree murder after he chased and shot a man who walked out with $36 worth of Natural Ice beer.Mehedeun Hasan, 22, and his father Q M Monsur Rahman, 61, were behind the counter...
Updated: 7 hours ago
‘Rather die first’: Gibsonton man shot by deputies didn’t want to be without his estranged wife, Facebook posts show

‘Rather die first’: Gibsonton man shot by deputies didn’t want to be without his estranged wife, Facebook posts show

RIVERVIEW — Tim Braun took to Facebook early Friday morning to tell the world, or at least friends, how determined he was save his marriage."Will not give up on my wife," he typed in black letters on a light green pattern of stylized cats. "Rather di...
Updated: 9 hours ago
These men were promised anonymous sex. They wound up on a porn site instead.

These men were promised anonymous sex. They wound up on a porn site instead.

The men thought they were going to a South Miami-Dade house for a casual and clandestine tryst with a bored housewife.Once there, the men agreed to be blindfolded, and for sex acts to be performed on them. What the victims did not know, federal agent...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Fourth victim recovered after planes from troubled flight school crash in Everglades

Fourth victim recovered after planes from troubled flight school crash in Everglades

As investigators continued to scour the Everglades Wednesday morning in the aftermath of Tuesday’s mid-air collision between two small aircraft, police said they recovered a fourth body.By mid-morning, the body had not yet been identified."Homicide i...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Lakeland teen, 15, killed in Dade City crash

Lakeland teen, 15, killed in Dade City crash

DADE CITY — A Lakeland teen was killed Tuesday night and a Lake Wales teen was critically injured in a crash on U.S. 301.According to the Florida Highway Patrol, 17-year-old Abigail Nicole Trammel, of Lake Wales, was driving a 2002 Ford Explorer west...
Published: 07/18/18
Spring Hill man killed in Hernando motorcycle crash

Spring Hill man killed in Hernando motorcycle crash

SPRING HILL — A Spring Hill man was killed Tuesday after the motorcycle he was riding was struck by another vehicle, the Florida Highway Patrol said.According to an FHP release, Michael Lucian Deleon, 26, was riding a 2001 GSX 1000 north on U.S. 19 a...
Published: 07/18/18
Residents use technological solution to combat tech-created problem: theft by porch pirates

Residents use technological solution to combat tech-created problem: theft by porch pirates

TAMPA — Four packages landed on the porch of a Palma Ceia home one day last month. Inside were shoes and supplies for a children’s birthday party. At 4:52 p.m. on a Friday, a man in a white hat calmly gathered up the brown boxes.Then he drove away fr...
Published: 07/18/18