Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Legislator Denise Ford urged residents on May 14 to file complaints with the Department of Consumer Affairs if they experienced fraud by Hurricane Sandy contractors, and announced that they’re pushing for new legislation that would strengthen protections for fraud victims.
“We’re here today to wage war against unscrupulous contractors,” Curran said. “...We encourage all consumers who have been victimized by contractors to contact the Nassau County Office of Consumer Affairs immediately — the number is (516) 571-3282.”
Curran announced that the county is exploring a program that would require testing and continuing education for contractors, and that any resident who was taken advantage of by a licensed or unlicensed contractor is “not alone in this fight.”
County officials were joined by West End resident Liz Treston, president of the Long Beach Community Organizations Active in Disasters, an organization that aims to help residents after natural disasters, outside her unfinished home on Wyoming Avenue.
Treston’s house was significantly damaged during the 2012 storm — she was forced out when water rushed in, flooded the basement and destroyed her belongings.
After she opted to elevate her home through the state’s NY Rising program, Treston lived in three different rentals and faced years of challenges to find a contractor who would rebuild and elevate her wheelchair-accessible home with the limited amount of award money.
She found a contractor in 2016, Fred Gutterman of JBJ General Contracting, who she said took almost $200,000 in NY Rising funds and her own money and abandoned the project, leaving the house unfinished — and uninhabitable. Gutterman has had at least 31 complaints filed against him, according to consumer affairs documents. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Treston is among a number of Long Beach residents who remain displaced while their homes are being rebuilt or elevated, and claim they have had their money taken from contractors while their houses remain unfinished.
“The office has received over 185 complaints related to Superstorm Sandy contractors,” Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gregory May said. “We need to make sure we have our hands on the full universe of people that have been affected negatively by unscrupulous contractors as a result of Superstorm Sandy.”
Ford has been meeting with residents for months to hear their individual stories.
“We’ve had various contractors that have 80 or 90 or even, some of them, 100 open cases where they have taken money from residents and just absconded with it — they’re like serial scammers,” Ford said. “It’s up to the [District Attorney] then to try to prove that it’s going to be a criminal, not a civil, matter, which is little comfort to the residents who are out of their money and are not getting the necessary repairs.”
Many displaced residents have expressed concerns that their houses will not be elevated in time to meet NY Rising deadlines, and be forced out of the program. The deadline for residents to have their houses in the air for the optional lift is June 1, and Sept. 1 for mandatory lift, Ford explained, urging residents to file a hardship claim with the state program.
“We can work with you,” Ford said. “Consumer Affairs, the D.A.’s office and NY Rising will work with those residents who have had problems with their contractors to make sure that if you don’t meet June 1st, they will extend your deadline.”
“These are the Nassau County taxpayers, soon to be homeless,” Treston said. “How will the county survive? ... It’s time that the laws need to be changed. They are currently there to protect these fraudulent contractors. In Louisiana, if you do this to one house, you get arrested — one. My current contractor has over 30 open complaints with consumer affairs. He is not in jail. We are to suffer. The time has come to make it stop.”
“Consumer Affairs did come up with some recommendations for some legislation to help us possibly, at our level, make it harder for contractors to do what they’re doing in Nassau County,” Ford said. “I think what we’re going to do is a concerted effort to try to get New York state to try to amend their laws.”
Ford and Treston spoke of contractor Cody Lawrence, of Turnkey Contractor Solutions, who was arrested April 8 in Calhoun County, Texas, on an outstanding warrant from Louisiana. Lawrence, 42, faced 36 complaints from residents along the South Shore who said he defrauded them. He was charged in Texas with contractor fraud and the misapplication of payments and was released the next day on $1,000 bond, according to Texas law enforcement records.
“Everyone feels like a fool,” Treston said. “We’re smart people — we have Master’s degrees, we’re school teachers, we’re firemen, we’re policemen, and we allow these men to come and sit at our kitchen table and say, ‘We are going to make you whole.’ ... Some of our families are going to soup kitchens, and they take the Long Island Rail Road every day, and they’re unable to feed their family. Stop being a fool and come forward.”
“Fraudulent contractors have stolen much more than money from the Sandy victims who have endured hardship for nearly six years,” State Sen. Todd Kaminsky said in a statement. “If you believe that you have been a victim of fraud and/or entitled to a hardship waiver from NY Rising, please contact my office and we will try to help restore the peace of mind that was wrongfully taken from you.”