Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Carmel on the Case: Fake Licenses
It may be the biggest license scam Miami-Dade has ever seen. County employees accused of selling hundreds of fake licenses to contractors. Now, homeowners say they're the ones being held responsible. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero is On The Case.
WSVN -- These three men are former employees of Miami-Dade's Building Code Compliance Office. They're accused of pulling a scam that has left thousands of homeowners with big headaches. Authorities say they created and sold fake licenses to "wannabe" contractors.
Herminio Gonzalez: "Whatever these individuals did, they did it after hours. They violated all the ethics laws of the county, and they became corrupt."
Herminio Gonzalez is the director of the Building Code Compliance Office which blew the whistle on the scam.
Herminio Gonzalez: "So far, we have approximately 3,200 permits that have been pulled using these bogus licenses."
One of those permits involved Heidi Lopez's new pool.
Heidi Lopez: "It was perfect for my children to jump into that pool five days ago, but, when they decided that they have a problem in-house, then it's a danger to go into my pool?"
Miami-Dade County has put her on notice. The subcontractor that did the electrical work had one of those bogus licenses.
Heidi Lopez: "How could I know that that particular license had been obtained illegally? I mean, it's absurd."
Now, like hundreds of others, she has received a notice.
In part, it reads her permit is not valid and must be transferred into her name or a licensed contractor who will assume the responsibility.
Heidi Lopez: "I won't be able to get an electrician to come and say, 'Yeah, the job is correctly done' because they didn't do it, and they're not going to assume the responsibility."
But that's not all.
The county also wants a "hold harmless letter" from homeowners which can legally let it off the hook for future problems.
Heidi Lopez: "I shouldn't be held liable. They're just dumping everything on me. I don't think that's correct!"
The Builder's Association of South Florida agrees.
Truly Burton: "These permits should not be opened again. The homeowners should not have to be dragged through this."
And the Association has offered an option.
Truly Burton: "Maybe a simple safety inspection really is the answer, just to clear it all up."
Still, the county is insisting permits must be transferred in order to be valid.
But to help out with costs, it says it is going to establish a trust fund.
Herminio Gonzalez: "We are going to do everything we can to help the homeowners because they are the victims as well as we are the victims. They are also the victims."
Carmel Cafiero: "There's no doubt this is one huge mess. The county says it is also going to go after the people who bought the bogus licenses. But the bottom line here is that innocent homeowners are in the middle and will pay a price for the deception."
Heidi Lopez: "I need this problem to be resolved without dragging me into a terrible mess!"
Fortunately, there is some hope for homeowners.
A handful of builders who hired subcontractors with the fake licenses tell us they plan to take care of their customers. Meanwhile, two of the suspects accused of selling fake licenses have been arrested.
The third, Lazaro Herrera, is still on the loose.
Homeowners with questions about hiring a contractor with a fake license can get information in Miami-Dade County by dialing 311.
If you have a story for Carmel:
Call her in Miami-Dade at 305-627-CLUE
Or in Broward at 954-921-CLUE