Worst Houston contractors of 2010
Pool King | Houston
Kenneth Von Lanni, 50, owner of Pool King, pleaded no contest in March to felony theft and received a five-year prison sentence. Prosecutors accused him of defrauding 23 Houston-area families of more than $200,000 by failing to complete their pool projects. At least three Houston-area homeowners with similar complaints also won default judgments against him in civil court in the last three years.
His brother, Steve Lanni (see Factory Direct Spas below), pleaded guilty to wire fraud in a separate case in December 2009.
"I wouldn't call it typical that two siblings are in the same type of business and they're both crooks," Harris County Assistant District Attorney Markay Stroud says of the Lanni brothers.
Kenneth Lanni signed pool-building contracts with homeowners throughout 2006 and 2007, but consistently failed to deliver, Stroud says, and that pattern of alleged deceit helped establish clear evidence of criminal intent. "The first six or seven [contracts], maybe," Stroud says. "But how many times is a jury going to believe you intended to complete the project?"
Steve Boaze, a retired Beach City homeowner on disability income, says he paid Pool King more than $20,000 for what he calls a snake-filled "hole in the ground." He says he paid another contractor $20,000 to complete the pool.
Lanni's defense attorney did not return calls.
Factory Direct Spas | Houston
Steve Todd Lanni, 49, pleaded guilty in December 2009 to felony wire fraud after federal prosecutors alleged he defrauded 46 consumers in the U.S. and Europe with his company, Factory Direct Spas. Court records indicate victims, dating back to 2004, lost $1,400 to $5,000 each, and more than $190,000 in all.
His brother, Kenneth Von Lanni (see Pool King above), pleaded no contest to felony theft in a separate case in March.
According to the federal charging documents, Steve Lanni's company sold significantly discounted hot tubs through eBay and demanded full payments before promising to ship the spas six to eight weeks later. But customers such as Stanwood Bryant of Camden, Maine, say weeks turned into months, and despite frequent calls to the company, no hot tub ever arrived.
"He strung it out for a long time, but I never got anything except robbed," Bryant says.
Lanni's plea agreement stipulated full restitution to victims and netted him a 30-month sentence at a federal penitentiary, followed by three years of supervised release. His federal public defender declined to comment.
Cars R Us Car Wash | Baytown, Texas
Baytown Police say it was dirty dealings at the Cars R Us Car Wash that led to owner Juan Ramon Reyes' September arrest on felony charges of credit card abuse.
According to court records, 13 customers who used credit cards at the car wash in early 2010 later reported unauthorized purchases. Baytown Police investigators say they used surveillance footage and receipts to connect Reyes, 40, who was charged with felony credit card abuse, to more than $16,000 in credit card fraud.
The B-rated company, based on one report from 2004, has a notice to alert members to the felony charges against Reyes.
Justin Church of Baytown says he used Reyes' car wash for 10 years - until he found $8,500 in unauthorized charges on his credit cards. After viewing surveillance tape from a store where one of his cards had been used, Church says he identified a suspect, who was wearing a Cars R Us Car Wash T-shirt. "The video evidence indicated that Juan Reyes was the one using the credit card - it's pretty strong," says Harris County Assistant District Attorney Donna Hawkins.
"I'm glad they finally caught him," Church says. "I don't like people like that in my community."
In November, a judge sentenced Reyes, who was on probation for a previous theft conviction, to two years in prison. Reyes' defense attorney did not return calls seeking comment.
— by Joshua Palmer