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Sandy contractor disputes bedevil LI homeowners

Eleanor Norton and her son Larry in front

Eleanor Norton and her son Larry in front of their Amity Harbor home on Feb. 21. "My mother wants her life back. She wants to go home," Larry said. Credit: James Carbone

Larry Norton and his 93-year-old mother haven’t been home since July, waiting for their canal-side house in Amity Harbor to be elevated. The contractor they originally paid to do the work in 2016 pleaded guilty this month to grand larceny in the second degree.

The contractor that Michele Mittleman and her husband hired to demolish and rebuild their home in Freeport, which also had been damaged by superstorm Sandy, left them with an empty lot, she said. The Nassau County district attorney’s office has charged him with grand larceny and scheme to defraud for allegedly stealing a total of $394,500 from them and four other homeowners.

And Ian Freeburg says a contractor he fired before elevation work began on his Lindenhurst home never paid back his $44,000 deposit. That contractor is now facing charges of grand larceny and scheme to defraud based on the complaints of Freeburg and six other homeowners, according to the district attorneys in Suffolk and Nassau counties.

More than five years after superstorm Sandy slammed into Long Island, disputes with contractors over repair jobs and storm-hardening elevations are thwarting attempts by some homeowners to get fully back on their feet. From criminal cases, like those involving Norton, Mittleman and Freeburg, to simple mistakes and disagreements that sometimes end up in civil court, construction gone awry can spell years of delay, financial loss and psychological toll, homeowners say.

“The consuming emotions are stress, stress, stress, anxiety, frustration and fatigue,” said Norton, 68, who has been staying at his brother’s home in Bellport with his mother since July, waiting for a new contractor to begin elevating their house. Work finally began on Valentine’s Day.

The October 2012 superstorm flooded or damaged nearly 100,000 structures on Long Island, according to federal statistics, including more than 38,000 with damage totaling more than 50 percent of their pre-storm market value. Property owners desperately sought contractors for needed repairs and, later, elevations of homes to raise them above the tidal surges of future storms. Most of those repairs went forward without allegations of misconduct or other legal issues, but not all.

The New York Legal Assistance Group, a city-based nonprofit that represents New Yorkers who cannot afford lawyers in civil litigation, has worked on more than 500 cases in New York City and Long Island related to allegations of contractor fraud made by homeowners affected by Sandy, 313 cases on Long Island alone, said William Friedman, acting director of the group’s response unit. Other nonprofits and private attorneys handled other cases.

Problems persist as homeowners elevate their homes, often using funds from federal grants disbursed by the state’s Office of Storm Recovery’s New York Rising residential recovery program, which distributes federal funds for storm repairs and elevations.

“Five years later, the big issues now are definitely contractor issues, particularly on Long Island where the [NY Rising] checks went out with little guidance or control over the contracting process,” Friedman said.

Complaints filed with either the Nassau or Suffolk county consumer affairs offices lead to hearings where an attempt is made to arbitrate a settlement. If negotiations fail, property owners may choose to pursue a civil suit. Where the contractor is found to be unlicensed or otherwise to have violated the law, complaints may be referred to county district attorney offices for investigation and possible prosecution.

Statute of limitations

Now, the five-year statute of limitations for larceny and fraud is starting to come into play for prosecuting alleged crimes committed by contractors after the storm.

“You can expect to see more arrests,” said Kenneth Heino, a deputy commissioner of consumer affairs for Nassau County, after a public hearing on contractor fraud in Long Beach in January that drew dozens of upset property owners still dealing with Sandy-related contractor issues.

Ben Jackson is chairman of the government affairs committee for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry NYC/Long Island, a trade association, and sits on the Nassau County Home Improvement Industry Board, an advisory group whose members come from diverse trades.

“There were a lot of people who after the storm became contractors who should not have been allowed to,” said Jackson, the owner of Ben’s General Contracting Corp. in Freeport. “I would say there was a larger than normal problem because of the amount of work; it was harder to control.”

A contractor who takes money and doesn’t perform the work is more likely to face criminal charges than one who performs subpar work, he said. “The problem is it’s hard to prove shoddy work, and it becomes an expensive civil matter.”

Homeowners who prevail in court, either through a guilty verdict or a ruling in civil court, are also not assured of being made whole in cases where contractors have no assets available or within legal reach, according to consumer affairs officials.

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas has urged homeowners who believe their contractors defrauded them by failing to perform the job they were paid to do to contact her office.

“Cases involving crooked contractors are especially disheartening because scam artists tend to target homeowners who are in dire straits,” she said. “I encourage anyone who may have been victimized to reach out to our office and report the incident.”

David Lizzol of Shirley, the contractor who has pleaded guilty to grand larceny in the Norton elevation case, is scheduled for a sentencing hearing on May 1 in Suffolk First District Court. His attorney, John Maccarone, declined to comment.

Delays over plan revisions

In the meantime, Larry Norton said elevation work on his Amity Harbor home finally began in mid-February with a contractor overseen by NY Rising.

The agency had approved the Nortons’ application for additional elevation funds under a hardship waiver in April. Norton said he expected work to begin quickly after he and his mother moved out in July, but plan revisions and approvals created delays, he said.

“Relocating is very stressful for an elderly person,” he said. “My mother wants her life back. She wants to go home.”

Now, Norton is seeing her “come back to life,” he said. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Maybe by June we’ll be safely home.”

Richard Holowchak of Blue Diamond Construction Management of Mineola, the contractor charged with grand larceny and scheme to defraud in the case of Mittleman and her husband, Stephen Parke, pleaded not guilty.

Jonathan Scher, Holowchak’s attorney, declined to comment on a pending case but said his client would mount a defense and continued to plead not guilty.

Mittleman, an attorney who was active in Sandy advocacy groups, said she and her husband had paid Holowchak to demolish their flooded house in the months after Sandy, which he did do, and had given him a $45,000 deposit to build an elevated home, which he didn’t do.

Mittleman’s property was subsequently bought by NY Rising, which also granted her family a hardship waiver to compensate for the funds paid to Holowchak. The couple used the money to buy a home in Huntington, she said. Even when a contractor is indicted on criminal charges, there may be a number of other homeowners who filed complaints against him whose cases were not included in the indictment.

Last year, for example, the Nassau County office of consumer affairs suspended the contractor license of Lee Moser, of Capstone Remodeling Inc. of Smithtown, based on 13 Sandy-related complaints. Only five were included in the indictment when he was charged in December in Nassau. He had already been charged in October in Suffolk for two cases there, including Ian Freeburg’s case, although other homeowners had also filed complaints against him with that county’s consumer affairs office. Moser has pleaded not guilty to charges of grand larceny and scheme to defraud in both counties.

His attorney Brian Trodden said, in an interview conducted when Moser appeared in court in Nassau County, that his client was discussing making restitution to the two homeowners identified in the Suffolk indictment. Trodden did not respond to calls seeking an update.

Freeburg said he had fired Moser before the elevation started, but Moser never returned his $44,000 deposit, which came from a NY Rising grant. NY Rising granted him a hardship waiver, restoring the lost money to him and his house is being elevated by another contractor.

Upticks in complaints

But Freeburg is still dealing with a house elevation he’d hoped to have completed long ago. “We’d be back in and living life by now,” he said.

County consumer affairs agencies on Long Island said there were upticks in complaints about home-improvement contractors after Sandy. In Suffolk County, for instance, the office fielded more than 1,550 complaints in 2013 and 2014, up from just over 1,200 in the two years before the storm. Officials in Nassau said they were still dealing with Sandy cases but could not break out specific statistics on home-repair contractors.

Jackson, the Freeport contractor, said the Home Improvement Industry Board in Nassau, which he sits on, is proposing that contractors be tested before getting a license and participate in educational programs.

“Some of these guys get into business and they might be a good carpenter but know nothing about business or the legal end,” he said. “Instead of punishing people let’s educate them.”

The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and its NY Rising program are not a party to disputes between homeowners and contractors, even if award money from the agency is at issue, according to its guidelines.

“That is a business transaction between the owner and the construction professional,” agency spokeswoman Catie Marshall said. “Anyone who thinks they have been taken advantage of needs to contact law enforcement first and GOSR second. We are not in a position to enforce the law or bring legal charges.”

Homeowners Jerry and Mia Vogt of Massapequa were hoping NY Rising would approve a hardship waiver for them after their contractor, Turnkey Contractor Solutions, lifted their house a foot lower than called for under the plans, which would prevent the couple from getting a certificate of occupancy. But their hardship claim to NY Rising was put on hold as they worked with Nassau’s Office of Consumer Affairs to negotiate a settlement with the contractor. Attorney Scott Agulnick initially represented Turnkey as it attempted to negotiate a settlement with the Vogts in the fall. At that time, Agulnick, who withdrew from the case early this year, said in an interview that the company acknowledged it had elevated the Vogts’ house lower than specified in their plan, and wanted to rectify it.

Now, the Vogts say they don’t know what will happen. Consumer Affairs suspended company owner Cody Lawrence’s license at a hearing on Jan. 31. In a letter to clients, Lawrence said he was working to restructure his business, and as a result of losing his workers’ compensation coverage would be unable to continue working on projects. He referred clients to Heath Berger, a bankruptcy attorney, who was not available for comment.

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