Shared from the 6/11/2018 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Complaints rise against post-Harvey contractors

Homeowners claim they’ve paid thousands, but houses are no better now than after flooding

Elizabeth Conley photos / Houston Chronicle

Monica Daly’s home was damaged by Harvey and later allegedly poorly renovated by a contractor.


Monica Daly alleges her bathroom, which was repaired after Harvey by a contractor, had to be redone due to incorrect wiring and plumbing.

Elizabeth Conley / Houston Chronicle

Christi Thompson, whose home was damaged by Harvey, hired a contractor referred to her by a friend. Now, after already paying him, she must also pay for the damages he allegedly caused.

Consumers beware

Before you sign a contract for construction or repairs:

1. Research the business online, and use the Better Business Bureau.

2. Check references.

3. Get everything in writing and get a physical address for the business.

If you feel like you have been scammed by a fraudulent contractor:

1. Call the police and file a police report.

2. File a complaint with the BBB

3. File a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

4. Consider hiring a lawyer to pursue a lawsuit.

If you want to report a problem

• Better Business Bureau of Greater Houston and South Texas — (713) 868-9500

• Texas Attorney General’s Office complaint line — (800) 621-0508


Monica and James Daly settled on a contractor for the complete remodel of their Pear-land home in September after it was flooded by Hurricane Harvey. They hired a La Porte contractor because he claimed he could do it all — on time and under budget, according to court records.

They started making payments, and over the course of several months, they spent more than $120,000.

Now, the couple — like so many others struggling to make repairs after Hurricane Harvey — are embroiled in a lawsuit, accusing contractor Pete Vasquez of making shoddy repairs to their home or none at all.

The Dalys’ suit is among more than 400 formal complaints and lawsuits that homeowners have filed in Houston and other storm-damaged cities against dozens of contractors in the wake of historic flooding triggered by Harvey, and more are being filed each week. The complaints run the gamut from shoddy work and long delays to accusations of confidence schemes to steal thousands of dollars from homeowners trying to get back into their homes.

Vasquez has denied any wrongdoing. He contends he has been victimized by families who complain about delays after they are hamstrung by a lack of funds while waiting on insurance and FEMA grants or who constantly expand the scope of their remodeling plans.

“I want to make it right,” Vasquez told the Chronicle, offering to return to the Dalys’ home to make repairs.

Consumer advocates say homeowners should be wary. Texas law does not require contractors to be licensed or even provide minimal bonds to ensure recovery if their work is subpar, meaning homeowners should verify the qualifications and examine the track records of those they hire.

“We are still consistently receiving complaints against contractors regarding repair work from Hurricane Harvey,” said Leah Napoliello, senior investigator for the Better Business Bureau of Greater Houston and South Texas. The BBB said almost 200 complaints have been filed against contractors, and the agency still gets three to five new ones each week.

‘No running water’

The BBB is typically the first step for dissatisfied customers and has implemented a formal process for dispute resolution. After a customer complains to the BBB, a written complaint is drafted and the desired result is forwarded to the contracting business. Often, the contractor attempts to make things right.

If that fails to satisfy, most customers can file a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office and ask the agency to file a lawsuit to get their money back. That state agency told the Chronicle it has received about 180 complaints from across the state since Harvey.

Disgruntled customers can also hire a private lawyer and file suit, as did the Daly family.

“It would have been better if he had done nothing at all,” said Monica Daly, a former chemical engineer.

In May, with no doors or windows in their house nine months after the flooding, the Dalys filed the lawsuit against Vasquez and his company, Texas Concrete & Remodeling.

“As unthinkable as it seems, the conduct by the defendants left plaintiffs in an even worse position than they were before he began work on the home,” according to the lawsuit. “There is still no running water; all of the flooring needs to be completely redone; there is also an open trench in plaintiff’s yard left behind by defendant’s incompetence.”

The Daly family’s lawsuit says Vasquez told them that $25,000 they gave him for new cabinets was stolen by an associate, but he failed to produce any substantiation.

It is the second suit against Vasquez over Harvey repairs. While investigating the contractor after questions arose about the work, the Dalys met the Thompson family, who also reported problems with Vasquez.

The Thompsons also filed complaints through the BBB and used the same Houston lawyer to bring a separate negligence suit against their former contractor.

“He has engaged in a pattern or practice of overpromising the things he can deliver on, and whether or not that’s fraud will have to be determined by a judge and jury,” said George Edwards, the attorney for both families. “But he has definitely fallen below the standard of care.”

Christi Thompson, a La Porte teacher, said she hired Vasquez after a cursory investigation and a reference from a friend who had just hired him.

“The defendant made false representations when he knowingly stated that these repairs would be done in a timely manner when, in fact, it was not done in a timely manner and the defendant never had any intention of getting these finished in a timely manner,” according to the lawsuit filed by the Thompson family. “Further, when the defendant made these representations, he knew that such representations were false.”

Increasing complaints

When there are repeated complaints or a pattern of fraudulent dealing, the BBB or local law enforcement can forward details to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to investigate as a theft or consumer fraud.

“What we want to tell people who believe they have been defrauded is that they need to go to their local law enforcement agency and file a police report,” advised Valerie Turner, chief of the DA’s consumer fraud section. “They should also call the Better Business Bureau.”

The law enforcement agency will then contact the DA’s office to determine if charges should be filed or if further criminal investigation is warranted.

Turner said that to prosecute the cases, there generally has to be several instances of deliberately bad behavior by a contractor. She said she does not know how many cases the DA’s office is currently prosecuting but said it is far fewer than the BBB investigates.

Every case is different, she said.

“We expect to hold people accountable for taking advantage of people after such a devastating storm,” the prosecutor said. But “there has to be a pretty decent disparity between the amount paid and the value of the work that they actually received.”

Turner said the number of complaints is up, which typically happens after Harris County experiences big storms. But she said the district attorney’s office is focused on prosecuting con artists and scammers, not sloppy contractors.

“Someone may make a complaint about shoddy work, but that’s not something we can investigate,” she said. “Contractors get credit for shoddy work. It’s not against the law to be bad at your job.”

‘Absolutely no work’

One local contractor, Aaron Dean Oaks, who sometimes does business as Christopher Sweat, has been charged with running a scam against a number of local homeowners who hired him to repair storm damage.

Three different homeowners filed complaints that he took thousands of dollars from them but never delivered any repairs on the structures, according to prosecutors. He was arrested on a third-degree felony theft of more than $30,000. If convicted, he faces 10 years in prison. Oaks remains in the Harris County Jail. His attorney declined to comment on the case.

“In this case, we’ve got three victims and they’ve lost about $31,000,” Turner said. “And he did absolutely no work.”

But failing to deliver on promises to homeowners is just one of his legal problems as the contractor has a long list of arrests and pending DWI charges.

He was charged with hit and run and evading police after law officers saw him injure a pedestrian while leaving a Webster bar in November, according to court records. He is accused of fleeing the police and wrecking the rental car he was driving. Oaks told police he rented a car because the vehicle he owned had been repossessed, court records show.

In Houston, there is no city requirement that contractors be licensed, registered or bonded.

Casey Morgan, CEO of the Greater Houston Builders Association, which represents general contractors and other construction professionals, recommends that consumers be careful in the wake of a natural disaster. People should check references, put agreements in writing and double-check the physical location of a business to protect themselves from fly-by-night operators.

“In the state of Texas, it’s illegal for a contractor to require payment up front if they can’t prove to you they have a physical address in the county where the job will occur, or adjacent county, for at least a year,” she said. “The state of Texas put that into place to try to curtail the kind of environment that’s really rampant after a natural disaster.”

‘Hard to weed them out’

Other parts of the state are also seeing fraudulent contractors emerge, especially around Rockport and Port Aransas, two coastal resort towns that suffered a direct hit when Harvey roared ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with 130 mph winds.

City Manager David Parsons of Port Aransas estimated that his city has had 30 to 50 complaints about contractors even though they are required to register and the city requires requires a $5,000 bond, which costs about $100.

“Seems like they float around. Anywhere there’s a disaster, in they come like flies,” he said. “Some of them are good; some are bad. And it’s hard to weed them out, even with our registration process.”

In nearby Rockport and Fulton, there have been relatively few reports of scammers, local officials said. Those cities also require contractors to register using a process established by the county government. Contractors have to fill out a no-fee registration form to receive an authorized sticker that residents can ask to see, said Mike Koerner, long-term recovery director in Aransas County.

“There are people who work outside the system, but it seems to have been successful,” Koerner said. “We’ve made it very public to our (storm) survivors that they should ask for documentation to make sure they’re registered with the city.”

Kevin Carruth, Rockport’s city manager, said more than 1,900 contractors are registered and there have been few complaints from homeowners about their services.

“The types of issues where fraud may be involved is very few,” he said. “We think the program has been a good tool to help people screen.”

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