Dozens of residents gathered for a forum in the Long Beach Public Library on Jan. 11 to discuss how to solve problems with contractors they hired for home elevations and repairs after Hurricane Sandy.
Hosted by Nassau County Legislator Denise Ford, State Assemblywoman Melissa Miller and the Long Beach Community Organizations Active in Disasters, the forum featured representatives of the Nassau County district attorney’s office and the county Office of Consumer Affairs, who answered attendees’ questions and offered advice on the steps to take after they experienced contractor fraud.
“After Hurricane Sandy, Nassau County was affected in a dramatic way,” Consumer Affairs representative Kenneth Heino said. “We have lots of complaints from Long Beach to Massapequa, back and forth along the South Shore.”
Many residents and officials contend that contractor fraud remains rampant in Long Beach. Warren Thurer, chief of the Criminal Complaint Unit at the D.A.’s office, said that D.A. Madeline Singas had arrested two former contractors, Lee Moser and Richard Holowchak. Moser, of Smithtown, allegedly scammed Sandy victims in Nassau and Suffolk counties out of tens of thousands of dollars. Holowchak, of Brooklyn, allegedly performed little or no work for five Nassau County homeowners who paid him a total of nearly $400,000, according to the D.A.’s office.
Since 2013, Singas’s office has filed criminal charges in 97 cases in Nassau County alleging unlicensed home improvement.
Many residents complained about a contractor named Thomas Hart, who they said neglected work he agreed to perform on their houses. “We have received complaints against this person,” Thurer said.
Hart could not be reached for comment.
Miriam Sholder, who represented Singas, said that the office doesn’t comment on complaints it receives unless and until a contractor is arrested.
Long Beach Building Commissioner Scott Kemins said that two or three contractors had committed fraud in Long Beach, forging contracts, doing work without a license and abandoning projects after taking homeowners’ money. Many residents said they remain displaced while work is being done on their homes — some since Sandy — and they continue to pay utility bills.
“It’s isolated to a few contractors, so percentage-wise, it’s not a huge problem,” Kemins said, “but that doesn’t discount the individual person that’s having all these issues, and paid money and didn’t have the work done. It’s catastrophic for this person.”
He added that the Building Department is willing to help homeowners find new contractors and work through their issues.
Heino encouraged attendees to submit complaints to his office if they had not already done so, so he could be made aware of their issues. He said that his office urges contractors to resolve any issues, and suspends their licenses if they failed to do so. He forwards the cases to Singas’s office, which determines whether the actions were criminal.
Thurer said he looks for complaints relating to grand larceny, scheme to defraud and unlicensed home improvement contracts. “Even though you might want to prosecute every single contractor who does a shoddy job,” he said, “it might not be criminal for every single contractor.”
He urged people to follow up on their cases with the D.A.’s office. But, he explained, it’s a long process to get to an arrest. “The Lee Moser case didn’t happen overnight,” Thurer said. “These cases could typically take a year or two, or even longer than that, from the time the complaint is made until charges are filed.”
East Hudson Street resident Angie Vasquez said she paid a contractor $210,000 to lift her house in April, but he worked for only 30 days and the home remains unfinished. Vasquez, who said she has been displaced from her home since Sandy, added that she filed a complaint with the Office of Consumer Affairs, only to have the contractor threaten to abandon the project if she didn’t retract it.
“He’s done nothing but bully me,” she said.
Heino told Vasquez not to retract the complaint, and that his office would pursue the case. Thurer said that anyone who has been threatened by contractors should contact the Long Beach Police Department or the D.A.’s office.
Island Park resident William Scully said he paid more than $60,000 to have his house raised, but his contractor failed to pay a subcontractor, who then put a lien on his house. The subcontractor has been charging him about $400 a month in interest, he said.
“My house is still up in the air,” Scully said. “I’m out of my house eight months, living in a trailer in the backyard in this kind of weather.”
Scully said he took his case to the D.A. last September, but the office “didn’t want anything to do with it” and forwarded his information to Consumer Affairs. Heino said he would work with Scully to move forward with the case.
Long Beach resident Kim Mushman asked about the coordination among different levels of government, because many residents were using money from NY Rising to pay for work on their houses. NY Rising, a state program, was launched four years ago to help homeowners fill the funding gaps left by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Small Business Administration and residents’ insurance policies.
“A lot of these contractors have intentionally preyed upon people knowing that they were stealing government funds,” Mushman said. “Why can’t this be stepped up a notch? Why isn’t it something bigger?”
“[The state] never contacted our office to see if the contractors were licensed, which was probably the first thing that they should’ve done,” Heino said.
Legislator Ford said she had worked with the Office of Consumer Affairs to discuss the issue with NY Rising representatives, and promised to work with Assemblywoman Miller and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to try to resolve residents’ concerns. “I will make sure that if I have to go up to Albany and barge into Governor Cuomo’s office, I’m going to bring Missy Miller, and we’re going to do it,” Ford said. “This is a nightmare.”
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, the Herald incorrectly referred to Thomas Hart as Thomas B. Park. We regret the error.