Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Unlicensed Contractor Sting Brings Fines, Arrests; 'TO CATCH A CONTRACTOR' Investigators Conduct a Six-Month Undercover Operation in Arlington

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Unlicensed Contractor Sting Brings Fines, Arrests; 'TO CATCH A CONTRACTOR' Investigators Conduct a Six-Month Undercover Operation in Arlington

Article excerpt

Byline: ADAM AASEN

With a difficult economic climate, homeowners are often looking for bargains when it comes to home repair.

Fixing a roof or wiring can be costly, so some hire unlicensed general contractors to save money.

But experts say those homeowners could end up paying more in the end. That's not to mention the risk of shoddy workmanship, unfinished work and no-show repairmen.

And now some workers are in legal trouble after 49 were nabbed during a six-month undercover sting that used a decoy home in Jacksonville's Arlington area.

Sixteen unlicensed contractors have been charged in "Operation: To Catch a Contractor," conducted by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Thirty-three more were issued $1,000 fines.

Some of the suspects - believed to be under the influence at the time - were even arrested on the scene on drug charges.

Investigators scoured the area for unlicensed contractor advertisements using the Times-Union, Web sites and business cards. Local contracting associations assisted with tips.

A department investigator and a Jacksonville police detective went undercover in a home on Ruxton Green Lane.

Investigators asked suspects for estimates that require a state license, such as plumbing, electrical and roofing work. They videotaped the transactions and charged the contractors after they arrived at the house to pick up a check.

"The message to these unlicensed contractors is, 'Guess what? The next home you go to might be us,'" said Sheriff John Rutherford.

Gary Allen Korzinski, 44, of Middleburg was arrested on Thursday when he showed up at the decoy home with Oxycontin, Valium and Klonopin, according to his arrest report. Dalen Ray Whitford, 31, of Starke showed up with Xanax, Oxycontin and marijuana, his report said.

"They were glazed over when they were coming out to do the work," Rutherford said.

Manase Cornel Babuta-Titean, 39, of Jacksonville and Louis Joseph Laboy, 34, of Middleburg were arrested because they were ineligible for notices to appear because of past criminal history. Babuta-Titean was arrested in February 2007 on armed robbery and assault charges. Laboy was arrested in 2003 on DUI charges.

Officials wouldn't say how many homeowners have been victimized, but Rutherford said they're planning future operations to catch unlicensed contractors.

"If we can catch this many this easily, I think it's an indicator there's an awful lot of this going on," he said.

Sandra Rentfrow, regional program administrator for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said her office receives hundreds of complaints about unlicensed contractors every year.

Rentfrow said she was reminded of a case of an elderly Jacksonville couple now $300,000 in debt because of an unlicensed contractor who never showed. …

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