The Contractors State License Board (CSLB), in cooperation with the Lake County District Attorney’s Office, performed the undercover operation on Dec. 10.
Members of CSLB’s Statewide Investigative Fraud Unit posed as property owners and took bids on projects that included fencing, landscaping, roofing, painting and exterior trim, the agency reported.
When the suspects offered bids over $500, they were arrested and given a notice to appear for contracting without a license. The license board reported that California law requires a state contractor’s license for home improvement jobs that are valued at $500 or more in material and labor.
CSLB investigators issued 14 notices to appear, five administrative citations and two warning letters.
James Arthur Lee Jr., 36, of Lucerne received both a notice to appear and citation after he bid $9,000 for the labor portion of a fencing project. The license board reported that Lee is no stranger to CSLB or breaking the law – he has received two prior CSLB citations for unlicensed activity.
In addition to Lee, those arrested were Ronald Carl Peterson, 38, of Clearlake; Bruce Suter, 57, of Clearlake; Gary Benson, 57, of Hidden Valley; Ronald Trader, 48, of Cobb; Luis Rodriguez, 42, Kelseyville; Jerry Heidebrect, 51, of Lower Lake; Jack Paulin, 52, of Lakeport; Stephen Cova, 40, of Clearlake; Blair Kirkpatrick, 41, of Lakeport; Benjamin Perry, 48, of Lakeport; Rodney Miller, 52, of Lower Lake; Richard Jensen, 39, of Kelseyville; Herson Prmando Marroquin, 39, of Nice; Mei Hing Dye, 46, of Lakeport; Daniel Morgan Dye, 61, of Lakeport; Jack Conrad, 59, of Kelseyville; and David Wilhelm, 52, Lakeport.
Venus Stromberg, a CSLB information officer, said the number arrested during this sting – 14 – is an average number in any given sting around the state, with some netting as many as 30 at a time.
Those arrested last week are facing misdemeanor charges of contracting without a license when they appear in Lake County Superior Court on Feb. 9, 2009, said Stromberg. The charges carry a potential sentence of up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine.
For repeat offenders, “the penalties just keep increasing,” she said, with higher fines and the potential for jail time.
Those operating without licenses in state or federally declared disaster zones can face felony charges, said Stromberg, who said that's the case for those arrested in a sting in a Southern California fire scene recently.
She said there are concerns about unlicensed contractor activity in Lake County but added, “It's a common problem, frankly, throughout the state.”
Unlicensed contractors tend to prey on the elderly, she said, and that's a concern for a place like Lake County, which has a large senior population.
The license board conducts a sting once a week somewhere within the state, said Stromberg, noting that there are field offices for the agency throughout the state.
A key to holding the stings is cooperation with local law enforcement, who often provide the impetus for the actions by calling CSLB to request their help, said Stromberg.
The CSLB reports that unlicensed operators are part of a multi-billion dollar underground economy that takes jobs away from legitimate contractors, and tax dollars from schools, roads and law enforcement. Illegal operators never carry workers’ compensation or liability insurance, and homeowners have little recourse if something goes wrong with an unlicensed operator.
Stromberg said she believes there is more sensitivity to the issue right now because everybody wants to get a deal in order to stretch their dollars. At the same time, legitimate contractors are not getting as much business because of the economic situation.
To qualify for a license, a contractor must verify four years of journey-level experience in the trade, pass both a trade and license law examination, and post a license bond. Stromberg said the license board works with unlicensed contractors in order to help them get their licenses.
Stromberg said the CSLB currently is watching two other cases involving unlicensed contractors in Lake County.
One involves the case of Ronald Paul Odbert, 71, of Nice.
Stromberg said Odbert was working on a trailer for a 63-year-old woman who is a cancer patient even though his contractor's license had been revoked in 2005.
His record shows an outstanding civil judgment, an outstanding contractor's bond payment and failure to meet worker's compensation requirements.
He is alleged to have diverted approximately $20,590 from the woman's project for his own personal use, said Stromberg.
Odbert also is alleged to have required an excessive down payment of $10,300 for a project he failed to complete, and also failed once again to maintain proper workers' compensation.
Stromberg said Odbert's case is going to court. He's due to appear in Lake County Superior Court on Jan. 16.
The second case involves 54-year-old Larry Brown of Lakeport, who the license board is investigating for allegedly defrauding at least three elderly victims in Lake County.
Brown, operating under the name “All Seasons Tree Service,” has allegedly taken large down payments or full payment for tree trimming, deck repair and fences and never returned to finish the work. There also are reports of him soliciting work in Sonoma County, according to the license board.
Late last month, the CSLB Statewide Investigative Fraud Team investigators delivered a case against Brown to local prosecutors that includes multiple felony charges of elder abuse, grand theft, diversion of funds, in addition to misdemeanor charges of contracting without a license and illegal advertising.
Brown has a long history of run-ins with local law enforcement authorities and a prison record, according to the license board. He also was on parole from a prior drug and theft conviction.
The CSLB and Lakeport Police believe there may be additional victims and are encouraging them to come forward. Anyone who has contracted with or has information about Larry Brown is asked to contact CSLB at 916-255-4602.
E-mail Elizabeth Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org.