Sheriff, DA clamping down on unscrupulous contractors

Crystal Stevenson

“Any time you have a disaster, there’s no question that people are going to be taken advantage of because they’re very vulnerable at that time,” Calcasieu Parish Sheriff Tony Mancuso said. “You have somebody who’s looking at their home, what they worked all their lives for, and the roof has a hole in it and somebody comes up to them and says they can get it fixed in a week or two weeks if you give them the money and the next thing you know they never see them again.”

It’s something the sheriff and District Attorney Stephen Dwight are seeing far too often in Southwest Louisiana since the double-punch of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020.

“We’ve received an overwhelming amount of phone calls,” Dwight said. “There are so many victims after this storm. We are fielding a lot of phone calls, the sheriff’s office is fielding a lot of phone calls and we realized we needed to combine our efforts.”

Mancuso said 166 complaints have been fielded so far, eight arrests have been made and more warrants are being served.

Mancuso said people get so focused on the damage and trying to get it fixed that they forget about their personal safety, in a sense.

“They’ll hire somebody who’s not from here and will never see them again,” Mancuso said. “That’s happened a lot, unfortunately.”

Dwight said multiple cases have been filed against the same individual who has been “victimizing multiple people throughout our parish.”

“We have an investigator out of our office that was actually working for the attorney general’s office after Hurricane Katrina on their contractor fraud response team and he’s helping us review all the files and figure out which ones are the proper ones to prosecute and which ones are really civil,” Dwight said. “It’s sad when people who’ve lost so much during the hurricanes and they finally get a little money from the insurance company and then a contractor comes in and takes it right off the bat and they never see them again.”

Dwight said a lot of the targets have been the elderly.

“It’s been nine months and you if you have given somebody money and they haven’t done anything or very, very little, there’s a good chance fraud may be involved,” Mancuso said. “No one should be taking advantage of our citizens here.”

Dwight said the majority of the contractors being investigated are not local.

“We don’t care where they’re located,” he said. “We’re issuing warrants and we’re going and getting them and we’re bringing them in.”

Mancuso said a legitimate contractor will have the money flow, resources and equity in their company to be able to fund some of the project initially.

“They may need a small amount as down payment but you should be monitoring what they are doing and make payments in stages as the work is completed,” he said. “That’s how a normal business transaction goes with a contractor. If it’s in writing it’s even better.”

Mancuso said there is a difference between civil and criminal matters.

“I got a call today from a woman who said the man working on her house does not have a license. That’s an easy one, it’s criminal because you have to have a license in the state of Louisiana to be a contractor,” he said.

Mancuso said residents shouldn’t pay a contractor anything until they check their credentials.

“The No. 1 issue we’re finding is that you have to have a contractor’s license in the state of Louisiana or you’re committing contractor fraud,” he said. “It’s more important for us as citizens to educate ourselves. Don’t panic and rush into something.”

Dwight said those convicted of contractor fraud face up to 20 years in prison, a $50,000 fine, court costs and restitution.

“What we’re most concerned about is restitution and getting the money back to the victims,” he said.

Dwight said in cases where a person comes in but doesn’t do “workman-like” work and did a very unsatisfactory work or didn’t complete the work, that is a civil matter.

Mancuso said their role is to help inform the public about the law.

“We don’t want to make things harder or more confusing,” he said. “Call our hotline, file a complaint, we have a mechanism in place with deputies and the district attorney’s office to streamline it, and the DA’s office will screen it and decide if it’s a civil matter or criminal matter. If it’s civil, they can tell them the steps to get an attorney and remedy it and if it’s criminal we will get it kicked back to us and we’ll serve warrants and make arrests.”

Dwight said their team has partnered with the Contractor Licensing Board and Better Business Bureau, as well.

“They have some different avenues that we don’t have and they can either restrict their license or revoke,” Dwight said.

The Contractor Fraud Response team hotline is 437-3405.

“We’ll look into the situation and determine if a crime has been committed,” Mancuso said. “If it has, we will file charges.”

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Calcasieu Parish Sheriff Tony Mancuso and District Attorney Stephen Dwight are combining their efforts to fight post-hurricane contractor fraud in the area.

Special to the American Press

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