ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — The fire is still hot when it comes to Matthew Banks of Banks Construction and Jesse LaCoste of LaCoste Construction.
On Wednesday, the Santa Rosa County Building Code Board of Adjustment and Appeals voted to make Banks pay $500,000 in restitutions to victims, but the buck doesn’t stop there.
The State Attorney’s Office told WKRG News 5 they are currently investigating, in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, the complaints against Banks and any other contractor they find in violation.
“The Department of Agriculture is really spearheading that investigation,” said Director of Public Relations for the State Attorney’s Office Frederick Longmire. “Our office is working in conjunction with them as complaints come in. Our office will look into any individual that necessitates an investigation.”
With more than 100 complaints coming in for Banks, Longmire said his office looks into every single complaint.
“Our goal and our job is to be accurate in our findings and present the best case as we move forward,” said Longmire. “Every complaint is taken seriously, and we work hard to investigate them all.”
Many victims are saying that the process to get a complaint investigated is way too long. Longmire said it takes as long as it can to do a full complete investigation.
“For us, it’s not so much about the time as it is about getting it right when we bring for any charge for any case,” said Longmire.
Last Thursday, Senator Doug Broxson called a meeting with local officials and law enforcement with the purpose of the meeting being to make the process to file a complaint more streamlined.
“There was some confusion about people calling and not knowing who exactly to call,” Broxson told WKRG News 5. “We actually came up with a chart to make it easier for citizens filing a complaint.”
According to the flow chart, a citizen should first file a complaint with the local building inspector then they send it out to the respective agency that is investigating. From there, the complaint will be sent to the State Attorney’s Office, where they will determine if the complaint is multi-county and then it will be referred to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, then to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, then to the Chief Financial Officer/Fraud Inspector. Once it is investigated by the Chief Financial Officer, it will go before a grand jury before heading back to the local building inspector.
Broxson said one of the main issues is when people file a complaint, they think the person should be out of business, which isn’t the case.
“That’s just not the way it works,” said Broxson. “You have to go through due process. There are several other contractors that they are investigating, but these two will have charges against them, according to the State Attorney’s Office. People have to be patient.”
Overall, Broxson said the meeting was productive.
“It was frustrating because there is an active investigation going on and there are 70 complaints for this one contractor, so it is going to take some time to interview all of those folks,” said Broxson. “I believe once they get everything investigated, they will go back to the State Attorney’s Office and determine what charges will be made.”
Home Builder Association of West Florida Director David Peaden, who was in attendance at the meeting, said this whole situation is egregious.
“If somebody walked into a bank and walked out with $50,000, by the end of the day, they would be captured and put into jail,” said Peaden. “The contractors in question allegedly took thousands of dollars in payments, time and time again, without doing any work, yet there was no sense of urgency to get the victims justice. That’s the unfortunate part.”
With so many different agencies dealing with contractor issues, Peaden said the meeting was beneficial because it produced a way to streamline complaints.
“When somebody has a problem, there isn’t an intake where somebody can go to get help and to be heard,” said Peaden. “That was a lot of the conversation that took place during the senator’s meeting.”
When issues like this happen with a few bad apples of contractors, Peaden said it puts all contractors in a bad light.
“There are people that have been in business for 10-20 years and have never had an issue and do right by their customers,” said Peaden. “Unfortunately, when there are a few bad apples, it spoils the whole bunch. It’s egregious what has happened, but I do believe justice will come. It takes time for the investigations to take place, but I think there will be justice in the end. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a way for the people that have been harmed to be made whole again.”
At the city level, during the mayor’s press conference on Monday, Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said the city did all that they could.
“I am incredibly sorry for the victims that have dealt with this, but the City of Pensacola really had no option to do what we do,” said Robinson. “Those things go through the competency board, and I think at this point, the right thing is happening with the state picking that up.”
Robinson said that he has heard people say that the city needs to come up with their own Contractor Competency Board.
“I really don’t think that is the solution,” said Robinson. “Whether you look at Escambia, Santa Rosa or Okaloosa, there were a number of competency boards that were looking at Banks and I don’t think adding one jurisdictional competency board solves the problem.”
He said what they are realizing now is that there are problems with competency boards.
“They are dealing with competency, that is the major issue they hope to address,” said Robinson. “What they are not dealing with is fraud, but I appreciate the senator picking it up.”
Robinson said with his expertise in real-estate, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation should look into how cases are dealt with when it comes to the Florida Real Estate Commission and Escrow disputes.
“If you look at what happens with Escrow accounts, you have to keep those on track and how aggressive FREC is,” said Robinson. “If someone turns you in for that, then you automatically lose your license and go to jail. I would suggest that DBPR look into that. I realize FREC was a little different because it existed before DBPR, but I do think their department can use something similar deal with the contractor’s board.”
With his term ending soon, Robinson said if it wasn’t, he would work with other jurisdictions to give solutions to state leadership that would be meaningful.
“That is going to fall at the state’s lap and to solve these problems, we are going to need the state’s assistance,” said Robinson. “So, I appreciate Sen. [Doug] Broxson jumping into that, but I think there are real solutions that need to be looked at. Our sympathies continue to be with those victims and our whole idea is to find solutions.”