HOUSTON—Contractors who get fined for doing shoddy work but never pay a dime, are still allowed to keep their licenses and keep on working under the Texas agency that’s supposed to protect consumers.
That’s according to an I-Team analysis of thousands of records from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.
Amy Shafer is one consumer who complained to TDLR.
“I was awoke (sic) in the middle of the night to a large pop,” Shafer said.
That pop was the air conditioning unit catching fire at her new home in Willis.
It got so intense and so hot in there it melted all the wires together,” she said.
The wires had shorted out and caused the fire, right outside Shafer’s bedroom. Worse, the unit supposedly just had been fixed by an air conditioning repairman.
“I was horrified at first and then I was angry,” Shafter said.
So Shafer filed a formal complaint with TDLR “hoping to spare somebody else down the line.”
The result? A $4,000 fine for repair man Lewis Tucker. The only problem? To this day, Tucker hasn’t paid a dime of his penalty. But that’s not the end of it.
“When he didn’t pay the money, they let him keep his license,” Shafer said.
And she’s not alone. Caroline Ogu said she’ll never forget what happened after an AC contractor botched the piping in their attic unit. It caused a slow, steady leak.
“The roof to my children’s room caved in, the sheetrock caved in,” Ogu said. “And then we started screaming.”
And while her kids weren’t hurt, Ogu’s pocket book sure was—out $10,000 for the shoddy repair job.
TDLR determined the job was not up to code and fined Kaikai $5,000. But again, he hasn’t paid a dime. And again, the state didn’t yank his license away.
“What they’re saying is we’re not protected, we are on our own,” Ogu said. In fact, the I-Team found a large chunk of contractors thumb their nose at the state. For air conditioning repairmen, 30 percent who are fined don’t pay. For electricians, it’s 42 percent. Together, the scofflaws owe more than $1 million.
Electrician Larry Gilmore was one of them. The state fined him four different times and he once owed more than $10,000. Gilmore eventually entered into a state-approved payment plan to satisfy his fines.
“Some of these are little stupid things,” Gilmore said, referring to a fine for not including his license number on an advertisement.
But another violation was for “engaging in activity that constitutes dishonesty, misrepresentation or fraud.”
Gilmore: “I disagree with that but I took the fine.”
I-Team: “Why not fight it if you disagree with it?”
Gilmore: “It’s cheaper to take the fine.
And later on, Gilmore told us: "I took that because it was cheaper to take that than to hire a lawyer to go to Austin.”
The I-Team discovered other contractors use a “take it and not pay it” approach for different reasons. Why? Because they know the State of Texas usually won’t do anything to them, but just wait until their license comes up for renewal. That can sometimes be months down the road. In the meantime, consumers can be left in the dark because TDLR’s website shows that the contractor has an active license. That gives the impression he’s in good standing, when in fact, he’s not,
The I-Team asked TDLR’s Deputy Director Brian Francis about that situation.
I-Team: “They’re not getting the full picture.”
Francis: “Well, Jeremy I tell you, we are always in the market for good ideas. You’ve brought something to our attention that we can definitely look at.”
And what about waiting until a licensee’s renewal date to take action?
I-Team: “Why not act quicker?”
Francis: “That’s a great question.”
Francis said the state is changing its ways, and now an overdue fine will trigger the license revocation process.
“If they thumb their nose, we have the ability to move quicker,” Francis said.
But those who’ve complained to the state maintain it should have happened a long time ago.
“I depended on the State to do something to him, where he wouldn’t do it to somebody else—make him stand accountable for what he’s supposed to do,” Amy Shafer said.
The I-Team tried to reach the contractor Shafer hired, but Lewis Tucker never responded to our letter and numerous voicemails. As for the other repairman, Prince Kaikai called the state’s investigation money-driven and biased and claims his case was wrongly decided.
Despite still owing $5,000 since February, Kaikai still holds an active license under TDLR.