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Unlicensed contractors nailed in undercover Gulfport operation

GULFPORT — The condo owner said he wanted someone to remodel his bathroom.

The job required knocking out a wall in his first-floor unit. The problem: It was a load bearing wall.

None of the eight contractors who inquired about the job said removing the wall — which helps support the entire building — could create a safety hazard.

"None of them said it was a load-bearing wall," said Gulfport police Lt. Howard Coombs. "They just said they'd do it."

Now all eight are in legal trouble. In an unusual sting, the condo owner was actually an undercover state agent, according to police, and the contractors who offered to do the work were all unlicensed.

That's a misdemeanor offense in Florida punishable by a fine, probation or even time in the county jail.

Police identified those nabbed in the sting as: Tony Alan Blair of Largo; Jose H. Collazos and Renan M. Collazos of Oldsmar; Perry Houston Harkness of St. Petersburg; Robert W. Herbert of Tampa; Robert J. Marsic Jr. of Tampa; Clarence R. Rediker of St. Petersburg; and Minh Mgoc Tran of Pinellas Park.

Some of the unlicensed contractors were given notices to appear, police said, while others were arrested on unrelated charges. One was arrested for violating felony probation and the other was arrested on charges of possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, according to police.

The operation was jointly run by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the Gulfport Police Department. The goal was to deter unlicensed and poorly trained contractors from preying on people by taking their money and performing poor-quality work — or no work at all.

"To me this has been an age-old problem," Coombs said. "People come in to this state and just prey on the elderly and on those who don't know any better.

"They think it's a victimless crime, that they're doing someone a favor." Until the customer is left with incomplete or a shoddily done work, that is.

The sting started Monday and ended Wednesday at the Gulf Shore Condominiums at 2900 45th St. S. The undercover agent went through ads placed in local papers by area handymen and arranged the meetings inside the condo, police said, which were all recorded.

The contractors knew or should have known that removing a load-bearing wall puts the stability of an entire structure at risk, along with everyone inside.

"It's very dangerous," said builder Joel Cantor of St. Petersburg's Cantor Partners LLC. "Usually when you do that, it has to be done with a permit, and you need plans from a structural engineer to show how to brace it and replace it.

"Would you let an unlicensed doctor give you bypass surgery? It could work, but maybe not."

Cantor, who was contacted by the Times to explain the dangers of removing a load-bearing wall, said he isn't surprised that so many would be willing to do anything for a paying job.

"I think it's a reflection of where the economy is today," said Cantor, 45. "There's a lot of desperate people trying to make a quick buck, and people need to be especially vigilant."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.



Call to alert officials

Consumers can report unlicensed individuals and businesses to the state by calling 1-866-532-1440. They also can verify licenses and search complaints by visiting www.MyFloridaLicense.com.

Unlicensed contractors nailed in undercover Gulfport operation 11/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 5, 2009 10:52pm]
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