Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bucks lawmaker seeks to toughen laws on unscrupulous home improvement contractors

Posted: Thursday, May 19, 2016
Home improvement contractors who perform work in Pennsylvania without registering with the state would face potential felony charges under a bill introduced in the Senate on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 1266, which was submitted by Bucks County Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-6, Bensalem, also would create criminal penalties for contractors who provide false or incomplete information in a registration application and grant the Consumer Protection Bureau in the Attorney General's Office new power to refuse, suspend or revoke a registration if the agency proves fraud, deception, misrepresentation or other violations of the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act were committed.
Sen. Tommy Tomlinson
A registration also would be revoked or rejected if an applicant was convicted of a crime involving theft, deception, fraud, misrepresentation or “moral turpitude,” as well as for gross negligence, incompetence or professional misconduct. Contractors with a suspended or revoked license in another state for similar reasons also wouldn't be able to register in Pennsylvania.
The bill is designed to address loopholes in the 2009 Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act, which created new regulations and penalties for the home improvement industry in the state and an online database of registered contractors. Statewide, 67,694 contractors were registered as of Thursday, according to the AG's office.
The current law requires contractors who perform at least $5,000 worth of home improvement work annually carry a minimum of $50,000 insurance and register with the AG's Bureau of Consumer Protection. They also are required to provide information about prior bankruptcy filings, criminal convictions and civil judgments.
But lying on a registration application or not registering at all isn't a crime; instead, scofflaws can face fines of up to $1,000 to $3,000 per violation. The current law also requires a court order to keep contractors who don't follow the law off the registry, but even with a court order a contractor can petition for reinstatement after five years.
Under the proposed amendment, failure to register would be a third-degree felony for contractors who enter into a home-improvement agreement for more than $2,000; if the contract is for less than $2,000, the charge would be a first-degree misdemeanor.
The bill was referred to the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, which Tomlinson chairs. It already has 10 co-sponsors, including Montgomery County Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-12, of Upper Moreland.
Tomlinson previously cited this news organization's 2015 two-part series — “Building a Case” — with raising his awareness of the law’s shortfalls and leading to his proposed amendment. The series examined how lax enforcement and legal loopholes has led to slow justice for Pennsylvanians who allege home improvement fraud.
Roughly half of at least two dozen contractors accused or convicted of home-improvement related crimes in Bucks County since 2009 were registered with the state as required, but they left out information or lied on applications, according to prosecutors and a review of applications following their arrests.
At least two Bucks County contractors with criminal theft and fraud convictions continued working in home repairs and construction fields with valid state registrations until they were arrested a second time on home improvement fraud charges. One of those convicted contractors, John Salvatico, of Doylestown, skirted the law by registering his business in his wife's name.
Home improvement contractors are the top subject of complaints received by Bucks County Consumer Protection, according to agency director Michael Bannon. Those contractors also frequently have failed to update their registration, which lasts two years, or let their insurance coverage lapse.
Bannon believes, if adopted, the proposed amendments would go a long way toward tightening the existing law and discouraging unscrupulous contractors.
"It will give the ability to take action and certainly the unregistered contractor will now have to comply with the law and that will be fair to the good businesses that have been doing it all along," Bannon said.

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