WEST PITTSTON — The recent spike of criminal charges against home improvement contractors around our area has focused attention to the state’s home improvement contractor registry and the contractors who sign up.
Many contractors on the state’s Home Improvement Contractor list have criminal convictions or owe thousands to customers who feel cheated.
During the flooding of September 2011 neighborhoods near the Susquehanna River in West Pittston were under several feet of water.
And when the water receded, it left homeowners including Pattie Evans needing to hire someone to help rebuild.
“It was full of mud,” said Evans. “Everything was turned upside down and lopsided.”
Pattie Evans hired contractor Gary Roccograndi of Wyoming to do the cleanup and repair.
She knew he was listed on the state’s Contractor Registry, and that seemed good enough.
But records show Roccograndi had a “D-minus” rating with the Better Businsess Bureau.
He also did not list six judgments against him from businesses and former customers as he was required to do when he applied to register with the state.
Pattie Evans says she wanted to go to court to get a seventh judgment against Roccograndi just a couple of months after the flood.
After she hired him, Evans says Roccograndi only did a fraction of the repair work promised.
“He comes in here for a week or so, and decided to go to another house,” said Evans.
Some wonder why even have the registry?
When Lackawanna County authorities first charged contractor Joseph Senese with fraud last month, he already had three drunk driving convictions, and five civil judgements.
But his alleged victims say they hired him because he was on the registry.
His name was removed last week, after the Attorney General’s Office found Senese let his registration expire.
We randomly checked backgrounds of 100 registered contractors from four area counties.
36 had criminal records, Including some with multiple drug and theft convictions.
But the state only requires contractors to list criminal convictions related to their jobs.
Another 20 contractors had been ordered to pay judgements to former customers.
The state legislature created the registry five years ago to protect consumers.
“By the time this bill got through the legislative process, it got so watered down, that it`s practically meaningless,” says State Representative Phyllis Mundy, a Democrat who represents parts of Luzerne County.
Mundy wanted the original bill to have stiff penalties for contractors caught cheating.
She’d like to put more teeth into the registry rules now, but says most lawmakers believe the enforcement would be too expensive.
“The chances of opening up this law and making it better at this point in time are slim to none,” says Mundy.
Deputy Attorney General Basil Merenda, head of the state`s Consumer Protection Bureau promises a crackdown, with more background checks of contractors and their applications.
“If we come across information that a contractor provided untruthful information, then we can take action to purge that contractor from our list,” said Merenda, who confirmed his office is now reviewing the application of Gary Roccograndi.
This is based on a lawsuit the AG’s Office filed on behalf of Patti Evans.
Roccograndi settled last year and agreed to pay Evans $21,000 in restitution.
Roccograndi failed to list that and other judgments on his recent application.
“It`s unacceptable for the state to allow this to happen,” said Evans.
After we told Gary Roccograndi about the review . He called the AG’s office to come clean.
Now he’s listed on the Registry as having judgments entered against him.
Roccograndi chose not to appear on camera for our story.
Instead, he faxed us a list of references, writing. “I am not a bad contractor, or person.”
So what role should the state’s Home Improvement Contractor`s Registry play when you hire a builder, painter, or any other contractor?
The Attorney General`s office says you can weed out potential scam artists if you find they are not on the registry, but Basil Merenda says, “Don`t stop there.”
He says you should ask for customer references, check out the Better Business Bureau Ratings, and consider credible on-line review sites like “Angie`s List.”
In the meantime, the AG’s office wants local police agencies who suspect cheating contractors are working in their communities to call them, and they will investigate.