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Contractors guilty of violations accuse Attorney General of scarring public reputations

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North country contractors who were fined for breaking state law on home improvement contracts say they could lose future customers because of a recent announcement suggesting they ripped customers off.

But in reality, contractors say, most of the three dozen businesses from St. Lawrence, Jefferson, and Lewis counties cited this month by the state attorney general’s office were guilty of only minor violations they didn’t realize they had committed. That wasn’t obvious to the public, however, because their names were lumped together in a list that didn’t include what they were cited for and how much they were fined.

Local contractors were among 211 businesses statewide fined for a range of violations associated with Article 36-A of General Business Law. They ranged from failure to provide basic information on written contracts, failure to place homeowners’ money in separate bank accounts before projects are finished and failure to honor work agreements. Fines ranged from $300 to $1,500, depending on violations.

Contractors say the state’s announcement misled the public by suggesting they were engaged in dishonest business practices, but most weren’t aware of the rules they needed to follow. This spring, the attorney general’s office requested contractors to send three copies of written homeowner agreements to ensure they were accurate, said Rick J. Davidson, owner of Davidson’s Painting in Clayton. He was surprised when the business received a letter ordering the business to pay a $350 fine due to problems with its written homeowner contract. If fines weren’t paid, the letter stated, the state threatened to investigate the business’s past six years of contracts for violations.

“We didn’t understand this law because it was new to us,” he said.

The business was directed to make minor revisions to its contract form and send it back, Mr. Davidson said. It was told, for instance, to add a space for the time and date on the form. He also agreed to open an escrow account in which customers’ payments will be held until projects are completed.

But Mr. Davidson, who has owned his business for 22 years, was taken aback when the state announced the names of the contractors. He’s already been questioned by several customers about the news.

“We have a good track record of business, and they made us look like we’ve had awful contracts or never had written contracts,” he said. “A lot of contractors are now fuming. Every one of these guys have done good work, and none of them should be on this list. Next time they do something like this, they should not come out with such a bad portrayal of good contractors. And they made it look like they did a widespread investigation, but we were the ones who sent in the contracts.”

The attorney general’s office defended its decision to announce the violations, pointing out that contractors are responsible to know state law. But it declined to respond when asked why names were listed together without naming specific violations. The Times published the list on Aug. 16.

“When contractors fail to obey the law, too often consumers pay the price,” said Deputy Press Secretary Robert Middaugh in an email. “The attorney general will continue fighting to protect consumers’ hard-earned dollars and ensure that contractors are held accountable.”

Another small business fined for not using a written homeowner contract to do business was JMS Mechanical Contractors, Ogdensburg. It never saw a need to develop an official contract because its policy is to accept payments from customers only after projects are finished, providing invoices to them at that time, said owner Jeffrey M. Skelly. His 27-year-old company has had only about $3,000 in uncollected customer payments over its lifetime, despite that policy.

Mr. Skelly — fined $300 for not having an escrow account or written contract — didn’t know about the state law. He hired a lawyer to fight the action, but acquiesced after paying $2,000 in legal fees.

“They should have sent us an information packet to make us aware of this. Then, there would have been no reason to investigate us in the first place,” he said. “Because we didn’t want to plead guilty, they said they were going to ruin my company and fine us for tens of thousands. I shouldn’t feel afraid of my government, but to pay $225 an hour for a lawyer to fight someone with unlimited resources is scary.”

Mr. Skelly is now concerned he’ll lose future customers who may have read the state’s announcement. The 12-man company hired two employees this year due to its growing customer base, he said. But a slowdown in busines he attributes to the state’s news release could make it challenging to keep them employed.

“If I’ve had 20 people who’ve read this news and will never call us because they haven’t had us work, jobs could be in jeopardy,” Mr. Skelly said. “The hardest part for us is to get into people’s doors and show them we’re different than other contractors.”

Some of the state rules also weren’t known by Bernard M. Bertrand, owner of Bertrand’s Construction, Ogdensburg. He was cited because the business’s contract did not include a provision allowing homeowners to back out of a contract three days after signing, or a mechanic’s lien giving the business authority to pursue uncollected customer payments in court. The 62-year-old, who’s owned the business 32 years, also didn’t have an escrow account to place advance payments from customers.

Mr. Bertrand, who paid a $300 fine, was pleased mistakes were corrected by the investigation. But he said violations could have been easily avoided if state guidelines were clearly explained to contractors.

“I don’t have time to spend a week on the computer to go over all of these regulations,” he said. “It seems like there is a better way they can communicate these rules. They could send us a postcard in the mail saying, ‘Here are 10 things you can do to avoid violations.’ This was a money grab.”

Watertown contractor Griffin Roofing paid a $300 fine because it failed to include a phone number and project-completion dates on contracts. Owner Gary L. Denesha said the state’s announcement should have included corresponding violations with names of businesses to avoid misleading the public. While some contractors intentionally abuse the system, he said, they can’t be identified if specific violations aren’t made public. While Griffin Roofing isn’t expecting to lose any current customers due to the announcement, he said, it could deter new customers from visiting.

“We were cited for not having a phone number on the contract, but the news made it sound like some contractors were ripping customers off,” Mr. Denesha said. “That’s an entirely different ball game. We wouldn’t have been here 85 years by ripping customers off.”

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