Thursday, June 21, 2018
Public safety

Restitution in sinkhole fraud case is $180,711

BROOKSVILLE — After four long years, Phyllis House finally knows how much she can expect from the sinkhole repair contractor who she says ruined her business. But it still could be a long time before she sees the money.

A judge has ordered Robert A. Contorno to pay House and three others a total of $180,711 to compensate them for the financial havoc he and other officials with Click's Construction created by failing to properly fix their homes.

"That's a small price to pay to stay out of prison, and if I had known that from the beginning I would have said send him to jail for 30 years," House said. "I lost my business because of this man."

Contorno, 50, who lives in Pinellas County, pleaded no contest in April to one count of organized fraud and was sentenced to five years of probation. Prosecutors reduced the charge to a third-degree felony, and Contorno agreed to pay $15,500 up front, plus whatever a judge determined he owed at a restitution hearing.

That made more sense so Contorno could work to pay back what he owed, said Assistant State Attorney Rob Lewis.

If convicted at trial, Contorno faced up to 30 years in prison.

"I was trying to get the victims made whole," Lewis said. "Most victims in these cases never see a dime."

Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. presided over that hearing in July. On Oct. 31, Merritt signed an order requiring Contorno to pay $40,334 to House; $21,300 to her daughter, Tina Olinski; $59,722 to Amy Chaves and Michael Vera; and $59,355 to Richard and Barbara McGrew. All of the properties are in Spring Hill.

Failing to make a good-faith effort to repay the money during his probation could result in prison time, Merritt wrote.

Contorno's attorney, Peyton Hyslop, said he is recommending that Contorno appeal the order because the damages were incorrectly calculated.

"They're not appropriate and not related to the crime he pled to," Hyslop said.

Hyslop said that even if the order stands, Contorno won't have to pay the full amount because three co-defendants were also ordered to pay restitution to some or all of the victims. Merritt's order notes that money paid by co-defendants can be deducted from Contorno's amount.

Authorities say Contorno, as president of Click's Construction, submitted fraudulent engineering reports to collect money from mortgage companies, insurance companies or the homeowners. Repairs were never done or were so shoddy that Contorno and other company officials could not have believed the work solved the problems, Lewis said. He was arrested in May 2011.

Carl Click, whom prosecutors called an absentee owner, was also charged with fraud. Click, 52, entered a pretrial diversion program this year and agreed to pay $15,000 in restitution.

Company vice president Lori Contorno, who was married to Robert at the time, pleaded guilty in 2011 to being a principal to organized fraud. She was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to pay $28,500. She is paying in monthly installments.

An engineer for the company, 69-year-old Ram Goel, was also arrested, but prosecutors dropped the organized-fraud charge when he agreed to pay $50,000 in restitution and cooperate as a witness. Lewis said the money already has been divided among the victims with whom Goel was involved. House, Olinski, and Chaves and Vera all received $16,600.

House was in the business of buying, fixing and reselling sinkhole homes. She borrowed $190,000 from an investor and paid $100,000 to buy a house on Cumberland Lane in Spring Hill. She paid Click's Construction a deposit. When she refused to pay the balance because of the quality of the work, Contorno put a lien on the property. It eventually went into foreclosure.

Merritt figured House is owed $40,344 — her deposit, plus $30,000 for the lost commission she would have made selling the house and $17,000 for attorney fees to fight the lien.

Olinski ran a similar company and lost a $135,000 deal because of shoddy repairs. She eventually had to sell the house on Fairfield Court as an unrepaired sinkhole property.

Chaves and Vera own their home on Renton Lane. Though the 2012 taxable value was $89,722, Chaves and Vera testified that the value as an unrepaired sinkhole home is about $30,000. Merritt subtracted the two figures to come up with what they are owed.

The McGrews paid Click's Construction $55,533 for repairs to their home on Aloe Drive and then had to pay $158,000 to do the job correctly, records show. Merritt calculated their damages by subtracting money received from their insurance company and from a separate settlement agreement with Click's.

Hyslop said Contorno is working a sales job but will likely qualify to have a public defender take his case on appeal.

That seemed to bolster House's already dire outlook.

"We'll never see this money," she said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

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