For years, licensed contractors in Pinellas County have yearned for law enforcement to target unlicensed roofers, painters and others in the construction trades who perform shoddy work and swindle money from homeowners.
Deputies fulfilled that wish on Tuesday.
At 5 a.m., they began pounding on doors in a roundup of contractors accused of working without licences and workers' compensation insurance.
The arrests came two months after Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri started a pilot program to help the floundering Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board crack down on unlicensed violators. Gualtieri called it troubling and disturbing that the men had taken thousands of dollars from residents.
"They're thieves. They're scammers," Gualtieri said Tuesday. "They're ripping people off."
The "Operation Nailed" sweep targeted 20 men on Tuesday. Deputies arrested 11 of them early Tuesday and one turned himself in Tuesday night. More arrests are expected over the next few days.
The operation stunned some of the contractors, who have worked for years without fear of stiff penalties.
"I'm actually surprised anybody showed up," said Randolph Ronchi, 31, after being handcuffed and seated in a transport van.
All 20 of the men faced at least one charge of contracting without a license, a misdemeanor on the first offenses and a felony the second time. Nineteen also faced a 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.
Seven of the men faced a felony grand theft charge, including Richard Niger, who authorities accused of duping 90-year-old Darlene Anderson.
Anderson contracted with Niger for $26,125 to paint, repair plaster and screen a pool enclosure. Not only did Niger fail to complete the work, he told Anderson that he had ruined her $3,500 check in a washing machine and asked her to write another, authorities said. Anderson wrote a second check, and Niger cashed both.
Niger, 52, facing a misdemeanor charge of unlicensed contracting and felony charges of workers' compensation fraud and grand theft of a person over 65, turned himself in Tuesday night, Gualtieri said.
Anderson said in an interview Tuesday that she didn't realize Niger duped her until a bank statement showed he cashed both checks. She hopes he faces stiff consequences.
"If he can't do it to anyone else, that is what I would like to see," she said. "I'd like to see him pay for what he has done."
In Pinellas County, it's the construction licensing board's job to crack down on unlicensed contractors and protect property owners. The agency, however, doesn't have police powers; its inspectors can only fine contractors.
The agency has come under intense scrutiny this year since a series of Tampa Bay Times stories detailed how its leaders and staff lacked accountability, disregarded rules and raised concerns about whether it treated consumers and contractors fairly.
In recent months, the agency has been criticized for failing to deter violators and hasn't been able to collect more than $1.8 million in unpaid fines. In May, the agency's governing board said unlicensed contracting was out of control in Pinellas. It questioned why Pinellas deputies hadn't targeted unlicensed contractors like a dedicated unit in Hillsborough County.
At that time, Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times that the board's former executive director Rodney Fischer had never asked for help. Gualtieri said he was eager to assess the scope of the problem. On Tuesday, he said deputies have started more than 220 investigations since August.
"It's a new day. It's a new era," Gualtieri said. "We will continue to enforce the criminal laws of this state to prevent these predatory practices by unlicensed contractors in Pinellas County."
A licensing board database shows that some violators arrested Tuesday have multiple citations and unpaid fines going back years. The violators considered the fines a cost of doing business and they didn't deter them from preying on homeowners, Gualtieri said. He warned that more arrests and investigations are coming.
Pinellas County Commission chair Janet Long praised Gualtieri for taking action to protect residents.
"It's just the tip of the iceberg," Long said. "It's a sign that something needs to be addressed."
Contact Mark Puente at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente