DUNEDIN –– Pinellas sheriff's detectives spent their weekend luring in unlicensed electrical, plumbing and other home improvement contractors to a vacant home wired with cameras.
It took only hours before a stream of people arrived to work on the outdated home — and 26 of them left in handcuffs.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the results of the three-day "Operation Drop the Hammer" undercover sting revealed that unlicensed contracting is "a problem of great magnitude" in the county.
The sheriff blamed the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, the troubled independent agency that he said spent years failing to enforce the law and defend the public from being swindled by unlicensed contractors who perform shoddy work.
"The PCCLB was not doing its job," Gualtieri said Monday. "It was an ineffective system."
The sheriff said it is possible that hundreds, if not thousands, more violators are out there preying on unsuspecting homeowners across the county. He said the unlicensed contractors his agency arrested were "brazen" and showed no fear of getting caught.
"This operation was too easy," Gualtieri said. "It was like shooting fish in a barrel the last couple days."
All 26 of those arrested face at least one charge of contracting without a license, a misdemeanor for first offenses and a felony the second time. Twenty also face a felony charge of workers' compensation fraud. Florida law requires construction contractors to carry the insurance. Without it, violators can lower prices and steal business from licensed and insured contractors.
The tactics of one pair in particular outraged Gualtieri:
A woman who worked at the Home Depot at 2495 Gulf to Bay Blvd. in Clearwater would give her boyfriend's name to customers who needed work done. But once they hired him, the sheriff said, he would steal from their houses. In one case, Gualtieri said the boyfriend took more than $19,000 in jewelry and other possessions from a woman's home.
Deputies discovered the man had sold the goods at pawn shops, the sheriff said. They arrested Anthony Gianunzio, 26, on Monday on felony charges of grand theft and dealing in stolen property and misdemeanor charges of contracting without a license and workers' compensation fraud.
"He was stealing from them," Gualtieri said. The homeowner "thinks it's on the up and up" because the referral came from a store employee.
The sheriff said they plan to arrest the girlfriend, too.
The Tampa Bay Times reported a series of stories in 2017 that detailed how the construction licensing board's leaders and staff operated without accountability, disregarded agency and county rules and asked whether the agency treated consumers and contractors fairly.
It also appeared to be poorly designed to fulfill its mission: the agency has no police powers and can only issues civil citations with fines it cannot collect. The agency was owed more than $2 million in unpaid fines.
The licensing board imploded soon after, losing its top leader and the inspectors needed to track unlicensed contractors.
Investigations by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr. followed. A grand jury suggested multiple ways to change board operations, and Collazo issued a blistering report that outlined 93 problems with the agency.
By then, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has already started helping the licensing board do its job. In August, Gualtieri started the Construction Licensing Investigative Unit and trained deputies to investigate unlicensed contractors. Then came an October sting called "Operation Nailed" that resulted in 20 arrests.
This week's sting and arrests come as a proposal is moving through the Florida Legislature that would allow the Pinellas County Commission to take on oversight of the licensing board, which is the only independent board of its kind in the state. In other parts of Florida, counties handle such duties.
The sheriff is expected to release a report in the next month that outlines everything the unit did and possible ways his office can partner with the county if it gains control of the licensing board. He said the hot spots for unlicensed activity are in St. Petersburg and south Pinellas.
Gualtieri said the unlicensed contractors his agency caught were so nonchalant about breaking the law that they would offer estimates with and without the required permitting.
A concrete crew, for example, offered two prices for a driveway and concrete work, the sheriff said. The $10,500 "cash price" included the proper permits, Gualtieri said, while the price without permits was $9,000.
Gay Lancaster, the licensing board's interim leader, praised the Sheriff's Office for working to stop violators.
"It's pretty apparent not much was being done before," she said. "There needs to be a level paying field for contractors who want to play by the rules."
TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD
Contact Mark Puente at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente