Add another name to the builders' hall of shame. ¶ With the grand theft conviction last week of owner Steven Bartlett, Coral Bay Construction joins a too-long list of home builders — Lighthouse, Wysocki, Andres, Premiere, Springwood, Beacon — whose criminal and/or negligent conduct has vanquished the dreams of hundreds of trusting homeowners, and threatened the solvency of hundreds more subcontractors and suppliers on the Nature Coast.
It is heartbreaking every time a would-be homeowner loses his nest egg to a greedy builder who finds it easier to file bankruptcy than to keep his moral and legal contract to deliver a finished product. But the egregious details of Bartlett's case transform such well-placed empathy into maddening rage.
During the building boom of 2003-2005, Bartlett lived the lavish lifestyle of a high-rolling gambler and jet-setter. At the trial last month, his lawyer claimed that when Bartlett realized he was financially overextended and unable to finish the work he had started, he reined in his spending. That may be true, but it is of no comfort to the victims whose down payments and escrow draws he had used illegally to bankroll his business.
The Hernando County Sheriff's Office and the State Attorney's Office, keying off a 2003 investigation of Coral Bay Construction by Times reporter Dan DeWitt, deserve credit for investing the time and resources to pursue this case. Not only has it made history by being the largest builder-fraud conviction in the history of the five-county 5th Judicial Circuit, it serves as a stark warning to other builders who may think they can dismiss the ripoff of a client as mere money mismanagement.
More legislation is needed in Florida to combat this trend and to protect consumers. The state Home Buyer's Protection Act of 1995, which was prompted by the troubles of Pasco home builder Clyde Hoeldtke, needs to be strengthened with stiffer penalties. The state builders association should instruct its lobbyists to work with legislators to make it happen, because every time a builder's name is added to the wall of shame, it undermines the credibility of scores more who are honest and dependable.
At the same time, law enforcers, municipal building officials and lending institutions should collaborate to crack down on contractors and builders who they suspect are misusing home buyers' money, or more innocently go belly-up. The sooner they are identified the sooner consumers are out of harm's way.
As for Bartlett, he is facing a minimum of 22 months in prison. That is ironic because the State Attorney's Office offered him a plea bargain before the trial began that would have capped his jail time at 24 months. Bartlett rejected it, and that delusion about his innocence should be noted by Judge William Swigert when he sentences Bartlett on April 16. At that time, Swigert has an opportunity to send a clear message to other fraudulent builders that the judiciary has no tolerance for such rapacious exploitation of the public.