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740 19TH ST SW


740 19TH ST SW



Estates resident under fire for taking money, not building homes

By ELYSA BATISTA 8:52 p.m., Monday, July 7, 2008

The gravel driveway is overgrown and a sand mound stands next to what appears to be a gutted terra cotta-colored house in Golden Gate Estates.

It’s where Alicia and Eladino Rey hoped to spend the remaining days of their retirement.

“We sold what we had in the Dominican Republic,” Alicia Rey, 64, said. “So we could move here and have the peace of mind that our house was completely paid for.”

Instead, for the past two years the couple has found themselves in the midst of a construction nightmare.

“In total, we’ve paid $220,350,” said Eladino Rey, 72. “And we barely have a house.”

The Reys are among several Collier residents who have filed formal complaints with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, or filed a civil suit, against Estates resident Veronica Fernandez and her companies Esquadra Developers and Golden Dream Homes.

Fernandez currently faces seven civil suits in circuit court for breach of contract or contract indebtedness, court records show.

Several attempts to reach Fernandez via phone and in person during the past week were unsuccessful, as was a call to her Naples attorney, Antonio Faga, who was on vacation.

But in an interview Thursday during a visit to Fernandez’ Estates home, her son, Demetrius Fernandez, 19, said it was crazy to suggest that his mother was involved.

According to a Department of Business and Professional Regulation investigative report, in August 2005 the Reys signed a contract with Fernandez to build a home at 5220 40th St. N.E. in the Estates.

However, investigators found that the actual permit applications to get the building started weren’t pulled until July 2006 — more than 120 days beyond what’s allowable by law and a month shy of when the Reys had expected to receive the keys to their new home.

To top it off, Eladino Rey said, the check for the permits bounced.

The state investigation revealed that the Reys’ home remained “unfinished and uninhabitable,” with shoddy workmanship and a roof so haphazardly put together that it needs to be replaced before anyone could even consider moving into the structure.

Even though the Department of Business and Professional Regulation was unable to contact Fernandez during the Reys investigation, records show that she spoke with the department in September after a cease-and-desist order was issued when Estates resident Zulima Alfaro filed an unlicensed contractor complaint against her in August.

“She left me with a big problem,” Alfaro, 60, said. “I’m on the brink of losing it all.”

In November 2005, the retiree paid Fernandez $34,000, 20 percent of the estimated cost for building a $170,000 home and an additional $10,000 for a guest home at 3039 DeSoto Blvd. N.

Two years after the contract was signed, and with the bank saying she had to start paying back the loan in spite of the fact that there was no house on the land, Alfaro said she decided to contact the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

While looking into the unlicensed contractor complaint filed against Fernandez by Alfaro, the state agency report said on Sept. 24, 2006, Fernandez called the department to ask why she received a cease-and-desist notification.

The September 2006 interview was cited in a March 3 report, which said Fernandez stated she was within her rights to provide contracts as a developer, and wouldn’t need a license.

However, according to state and county officials, Fernandez’s actions were not those of a developer.

A developer owns land and hires a contractor to build a home or homes on the property, which the developer then sells to a buyer once the houses are complete, said Michael Ossorio, Collier County contracting license supervisor.

On the other hand, general contractors don’t own the land they work on and are instead only hired to build the “contracted” project — which can entail hiring subcontractors to do the actual construction, such as plumbing and electrical work.

In Florida, there are two types of general contractors and both require a license.

A state-certified contractor is one who possesses a certificate of competency issued by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and is allowed to contract in any Florida jurisdiction without being required to fulfill any additional competency requirements.

Meanwhile, a registered contractor is a contractor who has registered with the state agency after getting certified by a specific jurisdiction — such as Collier or Lee county government — and can only build where they have been certified.

Because Fernandez was hired to build homes on other people’s properties, her actions would fall under the contractor umbrella.

Although Fernandez is eligible to take the general contractor exam, as of June records showed that she still wasn’t certified as general contractor.

During the September 2006 interview, the state report said, Fernandez was told she couldn’t do business under Esquadra developers, and couldn’t write contracts or take money.

Through it all, Alfaro and the Reys said, they wondered why Fernandez was able to remain in business for so long in spite of not having a license.

State documents show Russell L. Rimes Jr., a state-certified contractor with New Century Home Builders, was listed as the person whose license was used to pull the permits for both projects.

Rimes also signed the contract that permitted Alfaro to take out a $215,000 loan to cover the cost of building her dream home.

Without Rimes’ involvement in the transaction, Alfaro said, her bank wouldn’t have issued the loan to build the house in the first place.

“I’d like the community to be put on alert,” she said. “I took all the precautions and I was fooled.”

But Rimes didn’t actually pull all of the permits for the projects. Documents also showed that he had granted Fernandez power-of-attorney to pull permits on his behalf — a practice that Collier County government recently ended.

On Monday, Ossorio said that since Nov. 1 contractors in Collier County are no longer allowed to give someone power-of-attorney to pull a building permit.

“The restrictions were lax,” said Ossorio, adding that Collier’s recent building boom caused a “Rolodex effect” with contractors giving power-of-attorney to multiple agents, who could then pull permits without actually having a license. “We couldn’t control it ... it’s something we said we’re not going to do anymore.”

Bob Dunn, Collier’s building director, agreed and said that the issue became especially troublesome when people who no longer worked for a specific contractor still had the power-of-attorney and continued to pull permits.

“We had a lot of complaints from the contractors,” Dunn said.

Now someone with a power-of-attorney can pick up a permit, but only if the licensed contractor has gone through the process and already pulled the permit, Ossorio said.

Getting the Department of Business and Professional Regulation involved was sort of a last resort, the Reys said. The couple had filed complaints against Fernandez with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office and Collier County government in November, before talking to the state.

A Collier sheriff’s report said that the victim’s transaction documents and statements would be forwarded to Central Records, but that there was no crime at the time the complaint was filed.

“When we get a complaint like this, in order to make it a criminal case, we would have to show that at the time this person entered the contract with the client that their intention was to abscond with the money,” Collier sheriff’s spokeswoman Karie Partington said.

Because some amount of work was done on the Reys’ home, the Sheriff’s Office couldn’t pursue the case as a criminal action.

That’s not to say, Partington added, that if other cases involving the same person were brought to the department’s attention, that it might result in a criminal investigation.

As to the Reys’ complaints filed with Collier County government in 2007, county officials said their hands were tied.

Because Fernandez pulled permits through Rimes — a state-certified contractor — the case fell into the jurisdiction of the state agency, Collier County spokesman John Torre said.

“The information that we got, we turned over to the state,” said Torre, adding that Collier’s investigation found Esquadra was an unlicensed contractor.

If Rimes had instead been a registered contractor with county government, Collier would have been able to impose penalties, Ossorio said.

Alexis Antonacci, a spokeswoman for the state agency, said that the time between a complaint being reported and the investigation completion varies.

“It certainly depends on the investigation, and how easy or difficult it is to get information from the people,” said Antonacci, adding that investigations can take up to a year.

A state investigation into Rimes, due to his involvement with Esquadra Development/New Century Home Builders and Fernandez, resulted in two cases against him going before Florida’s Construction Industry Licensing Board for final action in May, records show. The board ordered Rimes to pay more than $15,000 in fines, more than $30,000 in restitution, and complete four years of probation.

Rimes’ wife, Kim, said the couple was surprised that complaints had been filed against him because they haven’t lived in Florida for almost three years.

“We live in Missouri. Russell has not been in Florida since October 2005,” Kim Rimes said.

As for Fernandez, Kim Rimes said, she (Fernandez) was aware of her responsibilities.

“Russell was a silent partner at one time,” Kim Rimes said. “But she (Fernandez) was the one who was financially responsible.”

Rimes added that the couple had not talked to Fernandez in about two years.

“We haven’t heard anything about this,” she said. “We had no clue (he was cited).”

News that the state investigation was completed and that Fernandez is slated to go before the Construction Industry Licensing Board in the future did come as a small relief, Alicia Rey said.

But due to the couple’s age and the amount of money they invested, Rey said, recovery is difficult in their situation.

But overall, she said she was pleased with the state’s action.

“I believe that even though justice may be slow, it will come,” she said.
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