Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Public safety

Sheriff’s undercover sting nabs 26 ‘brazen’ unlicensed contractors

DUNEDIN –– Pinellas sheriff’s detectives spent their weekend luring in unlicensed electrical, plumbing and other home improvement contractors to a vacant home wired with cameras.

It took only hours before a stream of people arrived to work on the outdated home — and 26 of them left in handcuffs.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the results of the three-day "Operation Drop the Hammer" undercover sting revealed that unlicensed contracting is "a problem of great magnitude" in the county.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders (Sept. 20, 2017)

The sheriff blamed the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, the troubled independent agency that he said spent years failing to enforce the law and defend the public from being swindled by unlicensed contractors who perform shoddy work.

"The PCCLB was not doing its job," Gualtieri said Monday. "It was an ineffective system."

The sheriff said it is possible that hundreds, if not thousands, more violators are out there preying on unsuspecting homeowners across the county. He said the unlicensed contractors his agency arrested were "brazen" and showed no fear of getting caught.

"This operation was too easy," Gualtieri said. "It was like shooting fish in a barrel the last couple days."

All 26 of those arrested face at least one charge of contracting without a license, a misdemeanor for first offenses and a felony the second time. Twenty also face a felony charge of workers’ compensation fraud. Florida law requires construction contractors to carry the insurance. Without it, violators can lower prices and steal business from licensed and insured contractors.

The tactics of one pair in particular outraged Gualtieri:

A woman who worked at the Home Depot at 2495 Gulf to Bay Blvd. in Clearwater would give her boyfriend’s name to customers who needed work done. But once they hired him, the sheriff said, he would steal from their houses. In one case, Gualtieri said the boyfriend took more than $19,000 in jewelry and other possessions from a woman’s home.

Deputies discovered the man had sold the goods at pawn shops, the sheriff said. They arrested Anthony Gianunzio, 26, on Monday on felony charges of grand theft and dealing in stolen property and misdemeanor charges of contracting without a license and workers’ compensation fraud.

"He was stealing from them," Gualtieri said. The homeowner "thinks it’s on the up and up" because the referral came from a store employee.

The sheriff said they plan to arrest the girlfriend, too.

The Tampa Bay Times reported a series of stories in 2017 that detailed how the construction licensing board’s leaders and staff operated without accountability, disregarded agency and county rules and asked whether the agency treated consumers and contractors fairly.

It also appeared to be poorly designed to fulfill its mission: the agency has no police powers and can only issues civil citations with fines it cannot collect. The agency was owed more than $2 million in unpaid fines.

The licensing board imploded soon after, losing its top leader and the inspectors needed to track unlicensed contractors.

Investigations by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr. followed. A grand jury suggested multiple ways to change board operations, and Collazo issued a blistering report that outlined 93 problems with the agency.

By then, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has already started helping the licensing board do its job. In August, Gualtieri started the Construction Licensing Investigative Unit and trained deputies to investigate unlicensed contractors. Then came an October sting called "Operation Nailed" that resulted in 20 arrests.

This week’s sting and arrests come as a proposal is moving through the Florida Legislature that would allow the Pinellas County Commission to take on oversight of the licensing board, which is the only independent board of its kind in the state. In other parts of Florida, counties handle such duties.

The sheriff is expected to release a report in the next month that outlines everything the unit did and possible ways his office can partner with the county if it gains control of the licensing board. He said the hot spots for unlicensed activity are in St. Petersburg and south Pinellas.

Gualtieri said the unlicensed contractors his agency caught were so nonchalant about breaking the law that they would offer estimates with and without the required permitting.

A concrete crew, for example, offered two prices for a driveway and concrete work, the sheriff said. The $10,500 "cash price" included the proper permits, Gualtieri said, while the price without permits was $9,000.

Gay Lancaster, the licensing board’s interim leader, praised the Sheriff’s Office for working to stop violators.

"It’s pretty apparent not much was being done before," she said. "There needs to be a level paying field for contractors who want to play by the rules."

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD

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

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

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

 
Comments
Deputy's wife texted 'Kirk has lost his mind' before murder-suicide, friend says

Deputy's wife texted 'Kirk has lost his mind' before murder-suicide, friend says

LAND O’LAKES — Samantha Keithley sent a series of disturbing text messages late Sunday, complaining about her husband to a longtime friend.“Kirk has lost his mind Kristin,” she wrote in one text to friend Kristin Kellin. &...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Shooter in Clearwater parking space incident makes bail

Shooter in Clearwater parking space incident makes bail

LARGO — Michael Drejka, the man who shot and killed Markeis McGlockton in a case that set off a national debate about self-defense in July, was released from the Pinellas County Jail on Monday afternoon.Always Available Bail Bonds posted $100,000 bai...
Updated: 11 hours ago
John Jonchuck set for spring 2019 trial in death of daughter Phoebe

John Jonchuck set for spring 2019 trial in death of daughter Phoebe

CLEARWATER — The day John Jonchuck was supposed to go on trial in the murder of his 5-year-old daughter, attorneys met instead to discuss a new trial date.The trial was delayed after Jonchuck’s attorneys raised concerns about one of the prosecutors’ ...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Firefighters respond to blaze in Lakewood High School gymnasium

Firefighters respond to blaze in Lakewood High School gymnasium

St. Petersburg firefighters responded to a blaze early Monday that began in the center of the gymnasium at Lakewood High School.According to St. Petersburg Fire Rescue, firefighters arrived on the south side of the school at 1400 54th Ave. S about 5:...
Published: 09/24/18
Pinellas sheriff’s SUV struck in chain-reaction crash on Trinity Boulevard

Pinellas sheriff’s SUV struck in chain-reaction crash on Trinity Boulevard

TARPON SPRINGS — A Pinellas sheriff’s deputy was caught up in a chain-reaction crash that took place early Monday at the intersection of Trinity Boulevard and East Lake Road. The crash took place at about 6:28 a.m., according to the Pinellas County S...
Published: 09/24/18
Dallas police say Officer Amber Guyger, accused of fatally shooting neighbor in his own apartment, has been fired

Dallas police say Officer Amber Guyger, accused of fatally shooting neighbor in his own apartment, has been fired

DALLAS — A white police officer accused of fatally shooting her black neighbor inside his own apartment was fired Monday for "adverse conduct," the Dallas Police Department said in a statement.Police Chief U. Renee Hall dismissed Officer Amber Guyger...
Published: 09/24/18
Pasco deputies identify body of man found in wooded Wesley Chapel campsite

Pasco deputies identify body of man found in wooded Wesley Chapel campsite

WESLEY CHAPEL — The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has identified a body discovered Saturday in a wooded area as a 60-year-old Hillsborough County man.Two people flagged down a deputy Saturday to report a decomposing body in the woods north of Beardsl...
Published: 09/24/18
Five new details on Clearwater parking space shooting

Five new details on Clearwater parking space shooting

More than two months have passed since Michael Drejka shot Markeis McGlockton in the parking lot of a convenience store.While developments in the headline-grabbing case have slowed to a trickle as it crawls through the court system, the Tampa Bay Tim...
Published: 09/24/18
Hillsborough asking why rescue captain stayed back as patient’s friends performed CPR

Hillsborough asking why rescue captain stayed back as patient’s friends performed CPR

TAMPA — It was almost 4 a.m. when the man’s friends found him unconscious in a Riverview home and called 911.His breath was shallow and he was turning blue. With the 911 call-taker giving instructions, his friends performed CPR and waited.Ten minutes...
Published: 09/24/18
Police in St. Petersburg searching for missing elderly man

Police in St. Petersburg searching for missing elderly man

Police in St. Petersburg are searching for a missing elderly man.Shortly after 5 p.m., Frederick Mein, 86, drove his silver Toyota Tacoma pickup truck from his home on the 1500 block of 78th Avenue N to his daughter’s house a couple of miles away. He...
Published: 09/23/18