Whenever homeowners were fleeced out of their money by unlicensed contractors, the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board was once considered consumers' first line of defense.
It shouldn't have been. The troubled agency was ineffective against unlicensed contractors.
But jilted homeowners have another option: The Pinellas County Consumer Protection department works with prosecutors to bring criminal charges against the worst offenders and help homeowners recoup their losses.
"We are not inspectors," said the department's operations manager, Doug Templeton. "We look for patterns to see if crimes have been committed."
Consumer protection's findings help the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office convict unlicensed contractors in court, where a judge can order them to pay back what they took.
"There is a misconception that unlicensed contractors don't pay back restitution," Assistant State Attorney Liz Jack said. "We want the public to know that we're here to help them."
Construction fraud can cost unwitting homeowners thousands of dollars for work that was never done or left incomplete — rendering a home unlivable.
The licensing board can levy fines, but can't enforce the law or even make offenders pay those fines. The agency is owed $1.8 million in uncollected fines, a big reason why it could run out of money early next year.
But the worst contractors face a far greater threat: criminal sanctions. Contracting without a license is a misdemeanor on the first offenses and a felony the second time.
Jack stressed that she's not criticizing the licensing board, but the agency's powers are limited. But the threat of criminal charges and jail time is a far stronger deterrent.
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The problem of unlicensed contracting has surfaced in recent months after the Tampa Bay Times wrote a series of articles raising questions about the agency that was supposed to crack down on those contractors.
The Times found that the board treated consumers and contractors unfairly while ignoring its own rules and state law. Those travails led to the departure of longtime executive director Rodney Fischer and the launch of a grand jury investigation.
The Pinellas County Division of Inspector General is also looking at its finances and operations. The Times also detailed how Fischer refused to allow county officials in 2014 to examine its internal records.
But the agency also proved to be an impediment in another way: It handled hundreds of complaints a year, but rarely alerted other agencies about the worst cases.
It also never established any system to escalate complaints to law enforcement.
The licensing board's tracking system, which details 22,000 complaints, shows the agency referred less than 30 or so cases to the county consumer protection department going all the way back to 2001.
By comparison, prosecutors since Oct. 1 have already reviewed more than 100 construction-related complaints from consumer protection investigators, records show.
The department also offers to help consumers mediate disputes if officials determine bad acts don't reach the level of being a crime. The goal, Templeton said, is to help satisfy consumers.
"If the parties agree to work it out," he said, "it can be very effective."
The licensing board's interim executive director, Gay Lancaster, said the agency plans to refer more cases to consumer protection. She said the agency doesn't have "much teeth" to get money back to homeowners.
"I'm in favor of collaboration at every level," Lancaster said. "It should be a regular occurrence. (Consumers) are frustrated when we can't do more."
The licensing board was created by the Florida Legislature in 1973 to register contractors across the county and to crack down on unlicensed violators, does not report to county government.
But even if the agency could collect the fines it levies, the money keeps the operation running –– none flows to homeowners for restitution.
Last month, several longtime members of the agency's governing board complained that nobody in Pinellas County does anything to stop unlicensed offenders. Board members also blamed state authorities for ignoring the issue.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced this week that he plans to develop a trial program to target unlicensed violators.
A frequent criticism of law enforcement is that agencies routinely tell homeowners their complaints against unlicensed contractors must be handled in court.
Jack acknowledges the problem but said officers cannot be expected to be experts in construction laws. Her office, consumer protection and the state Division of Financial Services are better equipped to examine financial records and find crimes.
"Each office brings something different to the table," Jack said. "We don't expect patrol officers to know this stuff."
That could soon change.
Largo attorney Daniel Moody, who has practiced construction law for more than three decades, recently offered to train officers about unlicensed contracting. He pitched that idea to local agencies, including prosecutors and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Moody said homeowners get discouraged when officers tell them their disputes with unlicensed contractors are civil matters, that the criminal justice system offers no remedies.
But those officers are wrong.
"I don't want to criticize anybody," Moody said. "I want to be a part of the solution to help law enforcement know about construction-related crimes. It's difficult to understand."
Contact Mark Puente at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente