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Construction cops slam door on bad builders

Two investigators at Tampa police headquarters bring help to unhappy homeowners.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published July 8, 2005


TAMPA - Carla Williams tolerated the single bathroom in her ranch house on W Ivy Street for 23 years. But when her daughters and her grandchildren moved in, Williams knew she needed more room.

So she took out a loan and hired a licensed contractor to expand her master bedroom and build a second bathroom. Nearly a year and $26,000 later, the contractor hadn't finished and wouldn't return her calls, Williams said.

So she called the Tampa Police Department's construction cops.

On a recent Wednesday morning, investigator Mike Mitcham visited Williams' West Tampa home to see the unfinished addition for himself. In shirt sleeves and tie, he looked over the freshly-painted walls, the construction debris littering the floor.

"I just feel abandoned," Williams, 49, told him.

"I'm going to give him a chance to finish this job," the investigator replied in his thick Louisiana drawl. "He has to finish this job according to the original contract, or I'll take the case to the county for possible action against his license."

Mitcham and his fellow construction investigator Bill Darrow don't carry guns. They can't arrest anybody. But from their office on the ninth floor of downtown Tampa police headquarters, the two men investigate questionable contractors, shoddy home renovations and construction projects that cross the line between bad work and criminal rip-off.

Mitcham and Darrow are the Tampa Police Department's only construction investigators.

They work like detectives, interviewing victims and witnesses, pulling financial records, checking suspects' backgrounds, visiting construction sites - their equivalent of crime scenes.

They don't have badges, but they have the power to take away a contractor's license or suspend his ability to pull permits. Sometimes, they send cases to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office to consider criminal charges.

Last month, prosecutors filed grand theft and organized fraud charges against a West Tampa man that Mitcham began investigating in April.

Jesus Ojeda, 33, is accused of posing as a licensed contractor and scamming four South Tampa homeowners out of tens of thousands of dollars by taking money for projects he never finished.

The case against Ojeda is the latest example of the construction cops' growing workload.

With so many people looking to real estate as a lucrative investment, residential renovations and expansions are on the rise.

So far in the budget year that began October 2004, the city of Tampa /has issued more than 21,030 permits for residential construction. That figure includes remodelings, new construction and home additions. During the same eight-month period in the previous budget year, the city issued 19,313 permits.

Police say that volume presents more opportunities for some contractors to take advantage of customers.

Darrow and Mitcham's job is to take those contractors to task and help customers get the work they paid for. Sometimes it means pursuing criminal charges, but more often they're dogging a contractor to finish what he started or to fix work that violates safety standards.

Coincidentally, Mitcham and Darrow were both Tampa police officers and Pinellas sheriff's deputies before they settled into jobs as investigators at the city's construction services department. That's where Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue found them a year ago and moved them to the Police Department.

"When they were over there, a lot of us didn't even know they existed," said Tampa police Capt. Paul Driscoll, who supervises Mitcham and Darrow.

"Now that they're here, they've developed a rapport with the detectives and the patrol officers. When an officer gets a complaint, they bring it right to them. And they have all the resources that a detective has."

Mitcham and Darrow investigate about seven cases each month. Most involve home construction, though they recently turned over to prosecutors the case of a contractor they say never finished a $140,000 expansion at Alessi's Bakery.

"I'm convinced we haven't even touched the tip of the iceberg on these cases," Driscoll said. "So many victims just eat their losses instead of contacting us."

* * *

Williams didn't know the Police Department had investigators to help people like her.

She found out when she called the city's building services department to tell them about her situation. By then, she feared she would be stuck with the dusty addition to her bedroom, littered with construction supplies, and a bathtub abandoned in the middle of the floor.

"This is a relief to me," she said of Mitcham's help, "because now I feel like I'm finally going to get this done."

Mitcham, accompanied by chief city building inspector Jim Greenhalgh, points out that her ceiling is uneven and the window jam was installed crookedly. But those are aesthetic problems. The work appears to meet code, so Mitcham will go after the contractor for failing to finish what was laid out in the agreement with Williams.

"I suspect he underbid this job, and when he realized he couldn't finish it without paying out of his own pocket, he said to heck with it," Mitcham said. "But he won't have a choice with me. He needs to finish this."

Just because a homeowner is displeased with a contractor's work doesn't mean a crime was committed.

Mitcham and Darrow work closely with Greenhalgh to determine whether a room addition or roof repair is cause for investigation.

"If a licensed contractor gets $60,000 for a job and only does $10,000 worth of work, that's potentially $50,000 stolen," Driscoll said.

But if work meets code and is worth the fee, and if the contractor is licensed, a homeowner doesn't have a case, Mitcham said.

"Just because you don't like how the paint job looks doesn't mean we can do anything about it," he said.

Mitcham and Darrow do have the power to suspend a contractor's license, and they can prevent a contractor from getting building permits.

"If we don't discipline these guys," Mitcham said, "they'll steal from these people. So we want the message out that we won't tolerate this."

With that, he gets into his city-issued Taurus and drives to east Tampa.

He needs to make sure an elderly woman's contractor fixed the rotting wood under her new siding.

"I told that guy, "You're going to fix this lady's house even if you have to sell your own house to do it."'

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 8, 2005, 01:02:17]


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