Worst contractors of 2008
Welcome to our 2nd annual list of Best and Worst Contractors, a compilation of the most exceptional and appalling home-improvement companies from 2008.
To determine the Worst Contractors, we scoured member reports, scrutinized companies in the Penalty Box, sifted through court documents and interviewed scores of sources, basing our final selections on the volume or seriousness of the allegations and the amount of damage — both physical and financial — customers say they’ve inflicted.
Our Best Contractors come from the most popular categories on Angie's List and had to meet requirements that put them in the top 1 percent of the nearly 10,000 eligible nationwide for the 2008 Angie's List Super Service Award.
From across the nation to around the corner, read on to learn about this year’s list of perfect pros and consummate cons.
A1 Construction of Chicagoland
Schiller Park, Ill.
A1 Construction of Chicagoland landed in the Penalty Box four times — the most of any company on Angie’s List in 2008. A1 had a good track record until May, when it began to receive a string of negative member reports accusing them of shoddy work or failing to start or complete jobs.
Typical customers are Allen Green and Mary Launder, who say they paid a $32,500 deposit for a room addition — and never heard from A1 again. “We just couldn’t believe they’d take off with our money,” Launder says.
In October, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued company secretary Vincent J. LaRocca and A1 president Joseph J. Schmitz for allegedly taking more than $245,000 in homeowners’ downpayments. Madigan is seeking to prohibit A1 from operating in the home repair trade, restitution and civil penalties. Schmitz and LaRocca, who has filed bankruptcy, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Housekeeper Barbara Turrentine Clark pleaded guilty in October to two counts of first-degree murder in the beating deaths of two elderly women.
When confronted with stealing and forging a $1,000 check, Clark admitted to brutally attacking 82-year-old Mary Corcoran, her 92-year-old roommate, Margaret Murta, and their friend Rebecca Fisher. Corcoran and Murta, who hired Clark to clean their home in an upscale retirement community, died from their injuries. Viewing autopsy photos, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning said it was one of the worst crimes he’d seen in 40 years.
Clark, who agreed to the plea to avoid the death penalty, will serve two consecutive life sentences and additional time for the assault on Fisher, but prosecutors say they dismissed a dozen financial crimes. “We are very pleased with the outcome,” says Assistant District Attorney Kayley Taber.
National Home Protection
New York City
The New York Attorney General is investigating National Home Protection — formerly United Home Warranties — after hundreds of consumers complained to police that the company didn’t honor its home warranty contracts.
Elvin Frost, of Randolph, N.J., says NHP didn’t replace his failed furnace despite allegedly telling him it would be covered before he signed his $500 year-long contract. “They kept stalling,” says Frost, who eventually paid $4,000 for a new boiler.
National Home Protection landed in the Penalty Box and has an “F” rating and a consumer alert on Angie’s List. It also has an unsatisfactory record with the BBB after failing to respond to more than 400 homeowner complaints. New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs spokesman Jeff Lamb says United Home Warranties racked up hundreds of complaints in that state, too, before going out of business in April. Messages left for the company’s president, Leo Serror, and the licensee, David Seruya, were not returned.
Mirage Pools Inc.
Vivian Perez hired Mirage Pools Inc. to install a pool but, after 15 months and $25,000, she says the project still wasn’t finished. “The only reason my pool was completed was due to my perseverance and, ultimately, hiring others to fix the work that Mirage refused to complete,” she says.
Last August, owner David Carol turned himself in to Port St. Lucie authorities and pleaded not guilty to six felony criminal counts of misapplying construction money. Police say the charges stem from 17 Florida homeowners who complained about unfinished pool work or work that wasn’t started at all. They add that six of those homeowners had liens placed on their property by subcontractors who weren’t paid even though the homeowners had already paid Mirage. The Florida Attorney General received 45 complaints while the BBB logged more than 100.
The company’s phone numbers are disconnected. Carol, who is out on bail while awaiting trial, couldn’t be reached for comment.
John A. Baldo
Financial consultant John A. Baldo bilked senior citizens out of nearly $2 million that he spent on lavish cars, gambling, nightclubs and gifts for strippers. After pleading guilty to three counts of investment fraud, he was sentenced in May to serve 87 months in federal prison and ordered to pay full restitution.
Albert Cohen, 90, of Storrs, Conn., was his biggest victim, losing more than $1 million. He says he transferred assets to Baldo to reinvest, and the next thing he knew FBI agents were informing him the money was gone. “I trusted him implicitly,” he says.
Baldo’s lawyer, Glen Randall, did not return calls asking for comment. But Judge Mark Wolf, at Baldo’s sentencing, had a few choice words for the convict: “What you did was truly despicable,” he said.
When Adam and Nicole Collins signed a contract to build their new home, they authorized Cobalt Homes to draw money from their construction loan so the builder wouldn’t have to obtain approval each time funds were needed. Nine months later, the couple discovered six fraudulent withdraws, according to court documents. “It was a nightmare,” Nicole says.
Adam and Nicole got their home eventually, though they had to hire another builder, and Cobalt Homes owner Brian Brady and office manager Melissa Brunner got slapped with charges of misusing more than $450,000 of the Collins’ and other home buyers’ construction funds. Brady, who admittedly used part of the money for his wife’s elective surgery and new trucks for his sons, pleaded guilty to communications fraud and was sentenced in September to three months in jail. Authorities say Brunner agreed to testify against Brady and pleaded guilty to reduced charges of four misdemeanor counts of attempted communications fraud. She was sentenced to three years of supervised probation and, along with Brady, ordered to pay restitution. The Utah Attorney General says some victims obtained separate civil judgments against Brady, who also faces more than 200 liens. Brady’s attorney declined to comment. Brunner’s attorney didn’t return calls.
Sonshine Tours & Travels
When Kathleen Phipp’s husband, John, became terminally ill with cancer, the couple decided to travel while they still could. They took a cruise with Sonshine Tours & Travels and owner Paul Stephen Young Jr. and had a great time, so they continued to use the company. “We booked a trip to Germany, Niagara Falls, Las Vegas and a Mediterranean cruise,” Kathleen says.
After spending more than $8,000 dollars in pre-paid travels, Kathleen received a letter informing her that Sonshine was closing and all trips were canceled. Mooresville, N.C., police detective Gerald Childress says 414 victims quickly came forward and estimates clients lost more than $320,000 in pre-paid trips, while investors in the business lost $140,000.
Young pleaded guilty to investor fraud and tax evasion in federal court in May. In his plea, Young agreed to provide full restitution to his victims, but Kathleen and Childress are skeptical. “Where the money went we don’t know,” Childress says. At press time, Young faced up to 25 years in prison and more than $5 million in fines.
Central Valley Backyards
Ione Taunton, of Lodi, Calif., hired Robert Lance Weaver in November 2007 to put an awning over her front porch. “He didn’t do one thing,” Taunton says.
Unbeknownst to her, the Contractors State License Board suspended Weaver’s license that same month for failure to have a contractor’s bond.
Weaver’s problems were just beginning. In July, he was sentenced to 120 days in jail after being convicted of forgery. Meanwhile, a number of Sacramento area homeowners — several of them elderly — were complaining that Weaver had taken thousands of dollars for landscaping projects but failed to do any work.
Police say they were shocked when they arrived at Weaver’s property to arrest him: “They found 23 dead dogs, a dead steer and seven pitiful-looking dogs,” says detective Lee Patterson, adding that the surviving canines were severely dehydrated.
According to San Joaquin County prosecutor Stephen Maier, Weaver ultimately pleaded guilty to 10 felonies and two misdemeanors, including elder and contracting fraud and animal cruelty. He was sentenced to three years in state prison and ordered to pay nearly $80,000 in restitution. Weaver’s attorney, Eric Taylor, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
After bilking hundreds of investors — ranging from friends and neighbors to co-workers and even millions of dollars from his employer, Charleston Southern University — Albert Parish headed to federal prison in July on a 24-year sentence for investment fraud. Prosecutors and victims say Parish, a respected economist and former professor, created Parish Economics to defraud 487 clients out of about $70 million in a complex pyramid scheme that came apart when federal officials began examining his reports. “I wish I’d wake up and find out it’s a bad dream,” says investor James Sineath.
W. Walter Wilkins, U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina, says one report cited the company’s assets as $134 million, while the reality was closer to $250,000. “Mr. Parish used the stolen money to shower himself with luxuries,” Wilkins says. Parish’s attorney, Mary Gordon Baker, declined to comment.
24/7 Home Repair
Paul Gordon, a felon with a long rap sheet, made last year’s list of Worst Contractors for allegedly performing shoddy work, running off with large deposits and harassing customers. He faced trial in two Florida counties on charges including organized fraud, grand theft and unlicensed contracting. But authorities say he didn’t show up for court dates, and they’ve got two active warrants out for his arrest.
Midge Walsh, a public information officer with the St. Petersburg police, says while her department doesn’t investigate active warrants, they’ll check out any information they receive. “If we get a tip about his whereabouts or hear another crime’s been committed, we’ll follow up,” Walsh says.
Angie’s List member Todd Vargas, who says he lost thousands of dollars to Gordon, believes it’s only a matter of time: “If the police don’t find him, then the bounty hunters for all that bail he skipped out on will.”
Reporting by John Baracani, Matt Brady, Kristy Esch, Staci Giordullo, YaShekia King, Conor Lee, Jackie Norris, Brittany Paris, Paul F.P. Pogue, Daniel Simmons and Liz Vernon