15 felony counts and three misdemeanor counts result from initiative
The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has arrested four people on multiple charges as a result of Operation Recover, an undercover initiative to protect residents from unlicensed contractors, the agency has announced.
“After the devastating property damage caused by Hurricane Ian,” the Sheriff’s Office planned an investigative effort to identify and arrest individuals engaging in the unlawful practice of contracting without a license and related crimes, a news release explains.
“When contractors conduct work without appropriate licensing, homeowners can be held liable and face financial and physical risk,” the release points out.
Since 2012, the Sheriff’s Office “has assigned detectives to investigate claims against people who engage in contracting work without proper licenses, permits, or certification,” the release points out. A first offense usually results in a civil citation issued by Sarasota County Code Enforcement staff, the release notes. However, “subsequent violations lead to misdemeanor or felony criminal charges,” the release adds.
At the time of Operation Recover, the release continues, the State of Florida was under a declared State of Emergency. As a result, violations were elevated from first-degree misdemeanor status to the level of a third-degree felony, the release notes.
The Sheriff’s Office coordinated its efforts with the Sarasota County Building Department, the Florida Department of Financial Services, and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), the release explains. “Detectives then contacted individuals to request home repair services that require a license,” the release says. Upon arrival of one of the contractors at a Sarasota County residence, the release notes, detectives checked the DBPR database to determine whether the individual was licensed “and had the required worker’s compensation coverage or exemption to perform the proposed work,” the release points out.
During the two-day operation, four people were arrested, with a total of 15 felony charges and three misdemeanor charges filed, the release says.
“As a consumer, seeking licensed contractors is critical when having work done on homes and businesses,” said Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman in the release. “Consumers will limit potential physical and financial risks by abiding by these rules and verifying that those they employ are legitimate business owners operating within the laws of Florida,” Hoffman added. “Working with verified contractors is particularly crucial right now, in the aftermath of a natural disaster. We have to do our best to look out for one another, especially newcomers to Florida and our senior citizens,” he said in the release.
Sarasota County Building Official Steve Bell points out that unlicensed contractors may not be aware of local and state laws that determine building codes and standards, so those individuals “can be hazardous to the health, safety and welfare of you, your family, and your property,” the release points out.
“An unlicensed contractor may cost you more in the long run,” Bell said in the release. “If hiring workers without worker’s compensation insurance, you could be held liable for injuries that occur on your property, not be covered under your homeowner’s policy, and be responsible for thousands of dollars of medical bills. Before you conduct business,” Bell continued, “ask to see the contractor’s license number and watch out for red flags including any asks for a financial commitment u front, or for you, the homeowner, to apply for a permit. Call 3-1-1 to verify contractors or to report unlicensed work,” added Bell in the release.
Florida law establishes rules and guidelines for obtaining professional licensure, the release explains. The people who have met these requirements are held to professional standards, the release adds. Consumers can verify licenses with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation by going online at www.myfloridalicense.com, by calling 850-487-1395, or by downloading the free DBPR Mobile app through iTunes or the Google Play store, the release notes.
To check a Sarasota County license, call the Customer Service and Permit Center at 941-861-6678 or 941-861-3029. To report someone you suspect is acting as an unlicensed contractor or performing work without a permit, call 941-861-5000, the release adds. For more information, visit https://www.scgov.net/government/planning-and-development-services/building.
One defendant in the aftermath of Operation Recover — James Taylor Jr. of 3100 Hawthorne St., Unit 278, in Sarasota — provided undercover personnel with an estimate to replace the screen enclosure and roofing on a lanai for $3,000. This is fourth time that detectives are aware of Taylor’s offering unlicensed contractual services, the release points out.
Based on reports filed earlier this year, Taylor offered services in November 2021 and twice in February of this year, to three separate victims, the release says. Upon his latest arrest, the release adds, Taylor was charged with three counts of Unlicensed Contracting and three counts of Workers Compensation Fraud. Additional charges are pending.
The Probable Cause Affidavit for Taylor in connection with a Feb. 18 incident said that the homeowners — whose identities and address were redacted — told a detective in July that they had hired Taylor “to perform needed repairs to their residential property and carport.”
On Feb. 18, Taylor had provided them an invoice for that work; it totaled $17,000, the affidavit said. The same day, the affidavit continued, they gave him a down payment check for 50% of that amount.
Taylor had advised them that he is a licensed contractor, the affidavit noted.
The contract between the homeowners and Taylor called for him to remove the existing carport and lanai roof, the affidavit said. The price he quoted them, it noted, was to cover engineering, permits, demolition, construction and cleanup. They were told to allow six weeks for him to obtain the materials and the permits; he was to start on April 1, the affidavit added.
After speaking with the homeowners, the affidavit continued, the detective contacted Sarasota County Investigations Supervisor Steve Drewing. The detective learned that no one ever had applied for permits for the work at the residence, the affidavit said.
Then the detective checked the Florida Division of Corporations and learned that Taylor was the registered agent for a company called Jim Taylor Rescreening & Aluminum Inc.; it was organized on April 23, 2012, the record showed. “The business currently has an inactive status,” the affidavit pointed out.
A search of other state records found that Taylor did not have a current worker’s compensation policy or exemption, and he “did not possess the appropriate skilled trade license and is not duly registered or certified as a contractor,” the affidavit said.
On July 21, when the detective interviewed Taylor, the affidavit continued, Taylor recalled having written the contract for work that the homeowners had described to the detective. Taylor told the detective that he never ordered the correct materials for the project and that he used the residents’ deposit “to pay off existing debts to other customers and purchased food/living expenses for himself.”
Moreover, the affidavit noted, Taylor “was aware that one must have worker’s compensation insurance, but did not have any nor did he have any exemptions.”
Therefore, the detective found probable cause to prosecute Taylor for worker’s compensation fraud.
A Sarasota News Leader search of court records found that Taylor pleaded not guilty in that case on Nov. 18 and demanded a jury trial. He is being represented by the Public Defender’s Office for the 12th Judicial District.
The three others arrested during the two-day Operation Recover are as follows:
- Theodore Gavales, 55, of 6142 Carlton Ave., Sarasota. He was charged with Unlicensed Contracting During a State of Emergency, Unregistered Electrical Contracting During a State of Emergency, and Workers Compensation Fraud.
- Kenton Feydt, 61, of 381 Jacaranda Circle, Venice. He was charged with Unlicensed Contracting During a State of Emergency, Unregistered Electrical Contracting During a State of Emergency, and Workers Compensation Fraud.
- Vitali Petrov, 48, of 12126 Chancellor Blvd., North Port. He has been charged with Unlicensed Contracting During a State of Emergency, Impersonating a Contractor During a State of Emergency, Workers Compensation Fraud, and Probation Violation.
Each of the four also received a cease-and-desist order from the State of Florida, the Sheriff’s Office news release notes.