ST. PETERSBURG –– From Saturday through early Monday, 30 people waltzed into a business in a busy plaza to pitch electrical, drywall and other construction services.
They left in handcuffs, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced on Monday, as his agency continued its crackdown on unlicensed contractors who prey on property owners.
The three-day sting, "Operation Flush Out," produced a combination of at least 60 felony and misdemeanor charges against people offering to work without a license or insurance, the sheriff said.
It is the sheriff's third sting since October to combat the hundreds of unlicensed contractors who rip off homeowners and leave properties in shambles. Gualtieri called it a "pervasive" problem throughout the county.
"Not one of them had a license," Gualtieri said about the violators. "Consumers are being harmed. Unlicensed contractors are preying on vulnerable people."
Contracting without a license carries a misdemeanor for first-time offenses and a felony the second time. Other violations include felony charge of workers' compensation fraud. Florida law requires contractors in the construction industry to carry the insurance. Without it, violators can lower prices and steal business from licensed and insured contractors.
Licensed contractors "are being undercut by these unlicensed people," Gualtieri said. "It's not fair to the legitimate business owners."
For years, unlicensed roofers, painters and others in the construction trades worked without fear of consequences.
Gualtieri's deputies started conducting the sweeps after a Tampa Bay Times' investigation in 2017 exposed how the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board failed to protect residents from unlicensed contractors.
During those investigations, Gualtieri learned that the Licensing Board failed to ask law enforcement to help take thousands of cases to criminal court. Instead, the agency preferred to punish violators with civil fines it could not compel anyone to pay. Gualtieri launched the Construction Licensing Investigative Unit and trained deputies to investigate contracting crimes.
As a result of the Times' investigation, the Florida Legislature passed a law this year to end the agency's independence. Pinellas County government took control of the agency on July 1.
Earlier stings, Operation Nailed in October and Operation Drop the Hammer in February, netted more than 45 arrests and dozens of charges.
On Monday, Gualtieri said he wished deputies could have set up two businesses because the number of arrests would have doubled. He has repeatedly called south Pinellas County a hot spot for unlicensed contractors.
He called the violators "unscrupulous and unprofessional," noting that one wrote a contract on a crumbled piece of paper. Another, who Gualtieri called a "habitual offender," had four outstanding warrants for the same crimes. The violators know the law and build the costs of possibly being arrested and fined into what they charge customers, Gualtieri said.
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Gualtieri warned that deputies will continue to go after unlicensed contractors.
"Stop it. Do it the right way," Gualtieri warned. "Stop ripping people off. If you don't, we'll get you next time."
TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD
Contact Mark Puente at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.