More than 120 people, including an Oakhurst man, may face criminal charges after being caught in simultaneous undercover sting operations conducted by the Contractors State License Board March 25-27, in nine California locations, including Bass Lake.
Among the 121 individuals arrested during CSLB's spring California Blitz were repeat offenders, a man who is awaiting trial on an assault with a deadly weapon charge, and someone who was caught in not one, but two different stings.
Investigators from CSLB's Statewide Investigative Fraud Team (SWIFT), along with partners from a variety of area law enforcement agencies, conducted the stings throughout the state including Bass Lake, Clovis, Hanford, Dana Point, Palos Verdes Estates, Sacramento, San Jose, Vista in San Diego County, and Woodland in Yolo County.
Investigators posed as homeowners seeking bids for home improvements such as painting, drywall, landscaping, decking, cabinets, flooring, fencing, masonry, concrete, and tree removal work.
Nineteen of the phony contractors also were issued Stop Orders (Business and Professions Code section 7127). Board investigators can halt job site activity when any person with or without a contractor license does not have workers' compensation insurance coverage for employees. Failure to comply with a Stop Order can result in misdemeanor charges and penalties, including 60 days in jail and/or up to $10,000 in fines.
Caught in the sting at Bass Lake on March 27 was painter Martin Soto of Oakhurst. He was cited for contracting without a license, illegal advertising, excessive down payments, and received a Stop Order for having no worker's compensation insurance.
The Madera County District Attorney's Office and the sheriff's department assisted in the investigation.
Others caught at Bass Lake included Neil Breton of Clovis, Caesar Blanco of Fresno, Tom Wilkerson of Mariposa, and Josiah Williams of Auberry.
The hearing date for the five Bass Lake cases has been set for July 17 in Madera County Superior Court.
Another nine people from Fresno and Clovis were caught in a separate sting held in Fresno.
A number of the suspects targeted during the operation were on board's radar after having consumer complaints filed against them. In one case, a suspect was cited by the state board after a refusing to take care of a paint job he botched. The suspect was more than willing to give an undercover investigator $1,200 bid for painting. That earned the suspect a date in front of a superior court judge.
Of the 121 individuals arrested, 115 now may face misdemeanor charges for contracting without a license (Business and Professions Code section 7028). The penalty for a conviction is up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000.
Ninety-four suspects also may be charged with illegal advertising (Business and Professions Code section 7027.1). State law requires contractors to place their license number in all print, broadcast, and online advertisements. Those without a license can advertise to perform jobs valued at less than $500, but the ad must state that they are not a licensed contractor. The penalty is a fine of $700 to $1,000.
Seven others may be charged with requesting an excessive down payment (Business and Professions Code section 7159.5). In California, a home improvement project down payment cannot exceed 10% of the contract total or $1,000, whichever is less. This misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or up to a $5,000 fine.
"Unlicensed, uninsured operators are in your neighborhoods every day, putting you and your family at risk," said Steve Sands, contractor's licensing board registrar. "Home improvement projects are expensive, so always make sure you're hiring a licensed contractor who can do the job right the first time."
Blitz totals may increase as some suspects are expected to provide their bids to undercover investigators via text, email or fax at a later date. A majority of those caught last week were identified through illegal ads posted on craigslist.org.
The California Contractors State License Board operates under the umbrella of the Department of Consumer Affairs, regulating the state's 300,000 contractors. The agency is regarded as of of the leading consumer protection agencies in the United States. In fiscal year 2012-2013, the agency recovered nearly $44 million in ordered restitution for consumers.
The agency encourages consumers to always "check the license first" by visiting cslb.ca.gov or call toll free (800) 321-2757.