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Sheeps and goats

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We expect government officials to be thorough and passionate about carrying out their duties.

But when bringing down the weight of a public office does more harm than good, there is obviously an issue. The goal of enforcing laws is to help make life better for residents, not merely to penalize them.

A recent news release from New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman impugned the reputations of some local business people. Mr. Schneiderman’s office examined the practice of contractors to ensure they were complying with the Home Improvement Contractors Law.

Mr. Schneiderman found numerous violations and notified the contractors that they would have to pay fines. The news release issued Aug. 15 announced he had reached settlements with 211 contractors.

But in detailing the problems uncovered, the news release lumped contractors guilty of minor infractions in with those who may have committed fraud. The news release sounded rather ominous in describing its findings but failed to differentiate between shady individuals and people who made honest mistakes.

“They [consumers] need to know their rights, and home improvement contractors must obey the law,” Mr. Schneiderman said in the news release. “My office will continue fighting to protect consumers’ hard-earned dollars and ensure that bad contractors are held accountable.”

There were 35 contractors from Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties who were fined for various violations. Those contacted by the Watertown Daily Times for a story published Aug. 24 said they weren’t aware of some of the provisions of the law and are eager to comply with them. They fear their businesses may suffer as a result of this negative publicity, and the attorney general’s office declined to respond when asked by this newspaper why names were listed together without detailing specific violations.

Distinguishing between contractors who were guilty of deception and those whose only “crime” was ignorance is crucial. The stagnant economy we’re enduring certainly does not need to be further stymied by harming honest contractors with allegations that are vague and misleading.

Protecting consumers from fraudulent practices is a worthwhile goal for Mr. Schneiderman’s office, but besmirching good businesspeople who made simple omissions is wrong. It is hard to fathom why the lack of a telephone number on a contract form is a fraudulent business practice.

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