Contractor Fraud Causes Second Devastation For Flood Survivors
Many homeowners who flooded last August are making significant progress on home repairs. Others though are dealing with a second devastation, the betrayal of a trusted contractor.
Standing at a table in her still damaged home, Karen Thompson sifts through paperwork from a folder filled with empty promises.
"They were supposed to pressure wash my house, remove insulation, replace the wall insulation, they didn't do any of this. None of this has been done. They hung a few sheets of sheetrock," Thompson says.
She points to a contract with Vanice Eugene Childress for repair work to her home off O'Neal Lane in Baton Rouge - it's dated November 10th, 2016. Also in the folder is a copy of a check for $30,000, made out to Childress Construction. "They got $30,000 from me and did maybe a thousand dollar's worth of work in my house," Thompson says.
The floors of her home are concrete and covered in sheetrock dust. Much of the sheetrock that hangs has jagged edges; bed sheets take the place of doors and wires stick out where lights once were. Thompson peels back some insulation to reveal what happened in her kitchen the last day any work was done on her home - sunshine beams through a hole in the exterior wall.
"I plugged it up as good as I could," she says. "They pushed holes through there and just left it and put sheetrock up with no insulation on my exterior walls."
It's been months since anyone has shown up to work on her house and she says no one from Childress Construction will answer her calls. This is not what Thompson expected would happen, especially when the contractor came recommended by a coworker. Thompson says she let her guard down and didn't verify the contractor's license.
"This man came to me and promised me the world, I'd have my house back, I'd be back by Christmas, everything was going to be beautiful, you won't believe it, we're going to do extra stuff for you," Thompson says. "That was just all a scam."
Thompson reached out to the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Department and her case is under investigation. She also filed a complaint with the State Licensing Board for Contractors. They've received nearly 300 contractor-related complaints since the flood. Brad Hassert is their Compliance Director.
"Most people feel like they've either been overcharged or they've paid a lot of money to a contractor who hasn't come back and completed their job," Hassert says. "Followed very closely by, in the homeowners opinion, it's taking the contractor far too long to complete the project."
The Licensing Board is limited in what they can do in these situations. Violators could be fined or have their license revoked, but there's no process for homeowners to recoup their money. They are often referred to local law enforcement. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore says contractor fraud cases present special challenges.
"You know, it's kind of easier to explain a burglary and a fingerprint to a jury, this a little more difficult," Moore says. "Banks and laws, rules and regulations makes it a little more difficult."
Moore says weeding through legal paperwork, like contracts, is also more challenging for investigators. "There's the added confusion of - is it civil or is it criminal?" he explains. "Was this actually a criminal matter, that he criminally intended to do something, or is this just the violation of a contract - is it a civil complaint? That confuses things as well."
But Moore says law enforcement officials are making progress with ten arrests so far. "At least one or two contractors have already been indicted with flood related criminal allegations, one which has been indicted across several of our parishes here... but again...these take time."
While Karen Thompson waits, she's warning everyone she knows to verify their contractor's license, not to pay up front and to check their references. She doesn’t want anyone to experience what she has.
"I feel stupid that I trusted people. I was traumatized. I'm still traumatized," Thompson says. "I want my life back. I want my house back."
And she wants her money back.
This report was brought to you by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, and made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.