The new Pinellas County agency that targets unlicensed contractors wanted to take on another responsibility: check the immigration status of those working at homes and on construction sites.
But the plan imploded when the Tampa Bay Times asked questions about it.
On Tuesday, Glenn Wardell, director of the Pinellas County Contractor Licensing Department, told county commissioners and members of the Pinellas legislative delegation that the agency partnered with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because people were running from job sites when licensing inspectors showed up. Not one elected official asked a question about the plan.
When the Times called him after the meeting, Wardell clarified that it was “non-English speaking people” who were evading inspectors. His agency, he said, expected to receive training from federal officials soon. Wardell also said agency employees would maintain a database of people with ID cards from other countries. Information about any patterns with any contractor would be given to immigration officials, he added.
On Wednesday, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton killed the plan and said Wardell did not have authority to contact immigration officials.
“This was an overreach,” Burton said. “We are taking steps to correct this. We are only going to enforce licensing issues.”
Added Commissioner Pat Gerard: “What (Wardell) should have done was contact the sheriff.”
The agency, formerly called the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, made headlines in 2017 for its rogue operation.
A series of Times’ investigations found the agency didn’t adjudicate disputes between consumers, didn’t follow state law and failed to protect homeowners from unlicensed contractors. The Pinellas County Inspector General’s Office found the agency mismanaged its finances, and employees and board members skirted the agency’s own rules. It was Florida's only independent construction board. To help protect homeowners, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri created a unit of deputies to target unlicensed violators. Deputies arrested more than 100 people.
Related coverage: TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD
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 on July 1.
On Wednesday, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman said deputies have not encountered people running from job sites. Wardell said he developed the idea to partner with federal officials after licensed contractors complained about unlicensed individuals hiring undocumented people.
Burton vowed the county would review all policies at the Construction Licensing Department and not keep a database of people who carry identification cards from outside the United States. The agency will ask the Sheriff's Office for help if people sprint away from job sites, he added
“These are not law enforcement professionals,” Burton said about licensing regulators. “We shouldn’t be trying to deal with law enforcement issues.”
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.