Contractor problems keep plaguing some Sandy victims by Michelle Brunetti
VENTNOR — In the kitchen of a Sandy-damaged house that can’t be lived in, a group of homeowners explained how they are still struggling with bureaucracy, contractor problems and incredible stress five years after the storm.
“We were right here when Sandy struck,” said homeowner Angel Eguaras, 80, of Ventnor, describing how the roof of his home partly peeled off and water streamed into the kitchen.
But in the five years since that day, he and his wife have had nothing but problems trying to get their home back into livable condition, he said to a group brought together by the New Jersey Organizing Project. NJOP formed to help homeowners with the rebuilding process after Sandy.
“We applied to the RREM (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation) program, and contacted someone on the list,” Eguaras said of a state-provided list of contractors. Work done by the contractor was failed by city inspectors numerous times, he said, but the RREM program told him it couldn’t help him unless he could get the police to charge the contractor.
An engineer working with the contractor even reported work on the house was not done in accordance with its professional drawings and specs, Eguaras said.
Yet it took more than a year to get the police to charge the contractor, and he is convinced he was only able to get police action with the help of NJOP, he said.
Now he’s waiting for the RREM program to decide how to proceed, since his house needs to be raised again, as the first house lifting left it too low.
Listening intently were 2nd District state Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic; state Sen. Colin Bell, D-Atlantic; and Assembly candidate John Armato, D-Atlantic; along with several other homeowners who have had similar problems.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear, of the New Jersey Organizing Project, said the Democrats were invited to fill in for Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, candidate for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Democrat gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy. She was due to participate but had to cancel.
Deveka-Rinear said the Murphy campaign has been responsive to her organization’s requests that the needs of Sandy affected families be addressed in the campaign, but the Republican candidate Kim Guagdano’s campaign has not responded.
But she said District 2 Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, who is running for state Senate against Bell, has been helpful.
“We enjoy working with him,” she said of Brown.
Jason Johnston, of Ventnor, said his mother’s home is torn apart, without even walls or electricity, yet her contractor billed her for work not done.
“In a 100-yard radius (of her home) you can see houses up in the air” but unfinished, Johnson said. Contractors have walked away.
“Until we get help, the words you guys say mean nothing to us,” Johnston told the politicians there. “My mom is devastated emotionally and financially.”
Julie Suarez, of Little Egg Harbor Township, said the work on her home is finished, but then she got a letter from the state saying it mistakenly paid her $51,000 too much, and she had to pay it back almost immediately in what is known as a “clawback.” When she questioned the amount, the state dropped the total to $25,000. But she has never seen an explanation for the amount, she said.
“We have all been through hell with this stress on all our lives,” Suarez said. She said she has borrowed from her pension and taken another loan to finish the work, and doesn’t know how she can pay back what the state wants.
Beth Torsiello, of Ventnor, said she is also waiting to find out from the RREM program how to proceed with adding a third floor to her home, which could not be lifted because of its construction. She said her first floor was lost to Sandy, and then she lost $12,000 she paid for design work to a contractor who never provided her services.
Her contractor, Werks Intended LLC, of Somers Point, also doing business as McAllister Building Group, was recently charged by state Attorney General Christopher Porrino and the state Division of Consumer Affairs with defrauding homeowners of more than $1 million in federal funding to repair, rebuild or elevate homes after Hurricane Sandy. The owners are Lawrence “Tre” McAllister III and Monica McAllister, officials said.
Torsiello has had her work delayed by the contractor problem and by the RREM program at first telling her she didn’t qualify.
“I see all these people in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, who think they are seeing the worst of it now,” said Torsiello. “It’s not. It’s yet to come.”
How Sandy changed us: Is it enough? by Michelle Brunetti Post
Five years after Hurricane Sandy made a direct hit on the Jersey Shore, massive amounts of money have been spent on rebuilding and resiliency projects.
The state has raised and repaired thousands of homes, set strict elevation standards, bought out hundreds of repeatedly flooded properties under the Blue Acres program, replenished beaches, required utilities to harden infrastructure and experimented with restoring wetlands.
Sandy changed us. But is it enough? Are we prepared for the next big storm?
Critics say no.
There is too little Blue Acres money to buy out people in flood-prone areas, and the program has not bought out anyone in communities on the Atlantic Ocean, said Sierra Club of New Jersey Director Jeff Tittel.
Instead, the 600 properties the state has purchased for about $128 million are on the Delaware Bayshore or along rivers, where property is not as expensive as on barrier islands.
“Many people along coastal areas are being held hostage to the next storm by the DEP because they are not being bought out under the Blue Acres program,” said Tittel. “The DEP is keeping people stuck along the coast who want to leave. This wastes money and keeps people in harm’s way.”
But others are optimistic, looking to protect the shore rather than abandon it.
“It takes years — at least five years — to do any major project by the time you design and build it, if everything works out,” said Jim Rutala, of Linwood’s Rutala Associates, a consultant who has worked with every coastal town in Atlantic County and some in Cape May and Cumberland counties to plan resiliency projects and get funding for them.
Rutala says we are still working toward being ready for the next big storm, but a lot of progress has been made.
“What’s really surprising in some ways, the municipal officials in towns are still aggressive on resiliency issues,” said Rutala. “Even Atlantic City has bonded and moved projects that they hadn’t addressed in decades.”
The city got funding for a $50 million sea wall and new Boardwalk in the Inlet, sharing costs with the state and federal governments; and $12 million to put in electronically controlled floodgates in the century-old underground Baltic Avenue Canal, he said.
Rutala, the former business administrator in Ocean City, worked with the city to acquire funding for both projects.
Ventnor recently passed an ordinance requiring newly built properties to have 3 feet of freeboard, or feet above the base flood elevation. The state only requires 1 foot, Rutala said.
“(Ventnor’s) position is that 3 feet protects those homes that much more. It also helps them get (National Flood Insurance Program) discounts. The towns are focused on issues like that.”
But Amanda Devecka-Rinear of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a nonprofit started to help families recover after Sandy, said New Jersey made a decision not to think about sea-level rise in its approach to planning for the future.
“It has potentially cost us millions and millions in federal grant money we could have used to prepare for future storms,” she said. “The governor pretended building dunes was going to address sea-level rise.”
It’s a start, but nothing more, Devecka-Rinear said.
And problems with the state’s oversight of federal funds for repairing and raising homes delayed or prevented help going to thousands, she said.
About 40,000 homes were damaged by the storm badly enough that homeowners had to leave, but only about 8,000 homeowners were admitted into the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation and Low-to-Moderate Income Homeowners Rebuilding programs, she said.
According to the program’s website, as of September only 5,695 have completed their projects, leaving 2,191 unfinished, Devecka-Rinear said.
Exact numbers on how many of the 40,000 are still struggling with repairs are unknown, but a survey by the nonprofit New Jersey Research Project found more than 20 percent of respondents are still not finished, she said.
Still, the work goes on.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a $3 million study of flood prevention for back bay areas, from Raritan Bay to Cape May.
Stone Harbor, Wildwood and North Wildwood got a total of about $25 million in funding from the DEP’s Flood Hazard Risk Reduction and Resiliency Grant Program, which administers federal funding to minimize flooding, especially around evacuation routes.
The Stone Harbor project includes elevating streets, building a new pump station and installing flood control valves on the bayside to benefit the 96th Street bridge exit off the island.
But the Black Horse Pike into Atlantic City still needs to be addressed, said Rutala.
“It’s a state highway, and it shuts down every month,” he said, at high tide. “It’s an emergency evacuation route. It’s a constant reminder something has to be done … to elevate that route.”
He said many parties are working on potential solutions.
“At first it was response and recovery, now it’s resiliency,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.
Wastewater treatment plants that failed in Sandy have had infrastructure hardened to be able to keep functioning in future storms, he said.
“We were moving in the same direction prior to Sandy, after Hurricanes Irene, etc.,” said Hajna. “But Sandy was definitely the impetus behind a lot of things we’ve done.”
On Tuesday, the state DEP and Department of Community Affairs announced $230 million in federal funds for construction of a flood-resistance system to protect Hoboken, parts of Weehawken and Jersey City in Hudson County.
The funds are from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its Rebuild by Design project.
Of the $930 million awarded in the Rebuild by Design program, $380 million is coming to New Jersey. The rest is going to New York and Connecticut, according to the RBD website.
Until Sandy, the approach to beach replenishment was “a hodgepodge. Some met Army Corps of Engineers standards; many did not,” Hajna said.
Now, the Army Corps and DEP are wrapping up the final beach-replenishment projects on Absecon Island, which when finished will mean all beaches from Raritan Bay to Cape May will meet Army Corps standards, he said.
NBC10 Investigators: New Jersey Demands Refunds from Superstorm Sandy Victims by George Spencer
For Lisa Stevens rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy meant down-sizing. The storm destroyed her bungalow in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey.
"I didn't build a mansion! I went smaller because that's what I could afford to do with my grant," Stevens said.
But what has surprised Stevens most about the rebuilding process came in an email from the state of New Jersey. It was what has become to be known as a claw back notice. The email demanded that Stevens pay back more than $7,400 of the grant money she was given to help rebuild. It said she received "duplicate benefits."
Stevens counters that her signed approvals show she did not receive duplicate benefits.
“They knew every dollar amount I was getting,” Stevens said. “They signed off on it.”
Stevens is among the 170-plus homeowners who have received similar notices from New Jersey’s Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation or RREM program.
The NBC10 Investigators found some, like Julie Suarez, with far larger refund demands. Suarez, a public school teacher, was told she owes more than $51,000.
“You can send us a cashier’s check at your earliest convenience. No ‘why.’ No ‘how to appeal.’ No ‘how to make a payment plan.’ Just, ‘you owe us 50-thousand dollars,’” she said.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear with the New Jersey Organizing Project (NJOP) describes it as “a gut punch” for Sandy victims. Devecka-Rinear is the executive director of the advocacy organization set up to helping Sandy victims. She believes the number of refund demands will only rise as more families finish rebuilding. She also says better oversight could've prevented over-payments in the first place.
NJOP wants the state to clarify its refund calculations, create realistic repayment options, and open a formal appeal process.
"We've gotta look at what financial capacity folks have -- we don't want them to go further into debt, be threatened to lose these houses," said Devecka-Rinear.
The NBC10 Investigators tried to take those requests to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. After two interview denials, reporter George Spencer and photojournalist Dan Lee went to the agency’s Trenton, NJ office. Commissioner Charles Richman finally agreed to an interview at noon that day. But just two hours later, his communications director Lisa Ryan canceled the interview saying urgent and unexpected business came up.
“He has an obligation to answer questions about it,” Spencer said.
“We’ve provided you with a statement,” Ryan replied.
Spencer and Lee waited for Richman to return to the office but after five hours, he did not return.
New Jersey officials have a legal obligation to recover funds that were duplicated, exceeded costs or were used on ineligible expenses. The DCA says any refund letters relate only to those over-payments.
In a statement the agency points out that all impacted homeowners “were afforded the opportunity to provide us with additional documentation (i.e., receipts, invoices) to offset potential recovery of grant funds.”
The NBC Investigators also reached out to Governor Chris Christie’s office. No one replied.
Suarez gets emotional when she thinks about paying back more than $50,000. She says even on the State’s 36-month payment plan, there won’t be enough time to pay the bill. And for Stevens, there’s still no appeal process mentioned.
“I wish I could say this was just a dream,” Stevens said.
Five years after Sandy, Questions Remain About Whether New Jersey Is More Resilient by Scott Gurian
When the eye of Sandy made landfall just north of Atlantic City, Fran Baronowitz’s neighborhood – which was a few miles away in Ventnor – suddenly turned into a lake. Water bubbled up through the air ducts of her home, and the floors buckled so much that she trouble opening the front door when she returned.
Baronowitz spent state grant money to fix and elevate her home six feet off the ground to protect it from future storms. After completing her repairs, she was finally ready to move on with her life. But then, in August of last year, she received a letter from the state saying an audit had found she’d gotten too much money and had unknowingly used some of it to make small upgrades that weren’t allowed. Now, the state was asking her to return more than $35,000. She was stunned.
“It’s just unbelievable! I had no idea that this was going to happen,” she said. “I’ve got two little pensions and social security, but it’s not a lot of money. I can’t give anybody $35,000!”
Lots of people are in her situation. Altogether, the state and federal governments have asked around one thousand homeowners in New Jersey to return more than $5 million in aid.
This weekend marks five years since Sandy came ashore, severely damaging or destroying some 40,000 homes and leaving the state with a bill for tens of billions of dollars in repairs. And even now, it continues to exact a devastating financial toll on many residents of the coast. With Governor Chris Christie’s term coming to an end, storm survivors, advocates, and environmentalists say it’s important that their concerns remain in the spotlight, and they’re hoping the state’s next governor – the election is on November 7th -- makes a number of improvements to speed up recovery efforts already underway and make the state safer in the future.
Despite all the time that’s passed since the storm, some people still haven’t been able to return home.
Angel Eguaras’s house – also in Ventnor -- remains uninhabitable due to shoddy workmanship by his state-approved contractor, who has since stopped returning his calls. Eguaras is 80 years old. His wife has been sick, and they’ve had to move 5 times, from one rental to another.
“I feel that I just fell through the cracks,” he said. “Out of sight, out of mind. We are weathering the storm, and hopefully we will emerge victorious from the struggle.”
Of the 7,600 residents receiving rebuilding grants, more than 1,000 remain displaced, according to state officials. But most of them expect to finish construction by early next year.
Storm victim advocates like Amanda Devecka-Rinear with the New Jersey Organizing Project are calling for a number of changes including making it easier for people to file claims against fraudulent contractors and a better appeals process for homeowners asked to pay the government back.
“All those folks need a hand getting across the finish line,” she said. “Could we as a state under new leadership say, 'That's it. Everyone is home by the six year anniversary,' and really drive hard to get there? Certainly we deserve that, right? And the question is, will our new governor take that up and take that on?”
The Christie administration points to a number of signs of progress in its handling of the Sandy recovery. So far it’s spent more than $2.5 billion of federal money on grants to help homeowners rebuild, assist small businesses, and provide rental assistance to displaced people. Nearly $40 million of that was spent on backup generators for hospitals, police, and fire stations to keep the lights on during future storms.
Speaking in Lavallette a few months after the storm, the governor said he’d remain focused on resiliency.
“Part of what we're trying to do in the aftermath of this tragedy is not to just build back to where we were, but to build back better and to use the federal funds that we're getting from the Congress to make sure that we make our infrastructure better here in this state to sustain future attacks by storms if they come,” he said.
New Jersey has paid for buyouts of more than 600 homes in vulnerable areas and has worked with the Army Corp to build protective dunes and widen beaches along much of the state’s Atlantic coast. It also won $380 million in a federal design competition to build walls, dikes, and pumps to flood-proof places like Hoboken and towns in the Meadowlands region. And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says it’s invested nearly a billion dollars in projects like flood barriers to protect the PATH trains and the Holland Tunnel.
“Some of the public infrastructure has been hardened. There was some investment made in some of the big sewage treatment plants to make them less vulnerable to flooding. Some of the utilities took steps to reduce their exposure to wind and flooding, all of which are absolutely appropriate and good steps to take,” said Tim Dillingham, Executive Director of the American Littoral Society, an environmental group dedicated to protecting the shoreline. But while he’s willing to give credit where credit’s due, he still thinks it’s not enough. If another big storm were to hit tomorrow, he fears New Jersey wouldn’t be much better off than it was during Sandy.
“I don't see a lot of real difference,” he explained. “Some of the houses are elevated, but I don't see much that really changed from the old way of doing things.”
In Sea Bright, a coastal community in Monmouth County, was devastated when the storm surge pushed sand against a rock wall, essentially creating a ramp that sent waves crashing into the downtown business district. The town’s response has been to fortify that wall, but Dillingham says the focus should instead be on moving people out of harm’s way.
“The guiding attitude was ‘we can be stronger than the storm and we can go back and rebuild,’” he said. “And that's exactly what happened. That serves all the traditional New Jersey interests of real estate development and local property taxes. And it's not in the best long term interests of us as a state or even the communities or the homeowners who are going to be right back where they were, just as vulnerable with no greater protection from the next inevitable storm.”
Superstorm Sandy’s Psychological Scars Run Deep by Chris Lundy
The Seaside boardwalk is back. The bridges, too. But you don’t have to look too hard to find remnants of Superstorm Sandy’s devastation along the Jersey Shore.
A line of waterfront homes is marred by a deserted house. A vacant property with the footprint still visible. A house being rebuilt on the water. These are the physical scars that Sandy had been there. The emotional scars are usually harder to see.
Many people are still struggling with the psychological effects of Sandy. The time it takes to get back in one’s home is longer than the length of some of the programs to help people.
Tricia McAvoy has not been able to move back in to her house in Brick yet. Instead, she’s staying with her 100-year-old father in Point Pleasant Beach.
“I cannot physically go into that house alone without shaking,” she said.
It hasn’t been fully restored. There have been a host of construction issues, contractor issues, RREM issues, and more. From the outside, it looks like it’s complete, although looking beneath the surface you would be able to see the problems that continue to keep her from coming home. There’s always something else to go wrong.
“You’re waiting for the next shoe to drop. You don’t want to open any letters. I’m afraid, sometimes, to answer the phone,” she said.
Tricia McAvoy is still trying to get back into her home in Brick. (Photo courtesy Priscilla Robinson with NJOP)There are physical after-effects as well. She said she developed chronic bronchitis and has had two strokes since the storm. She used to be healthy, but now she’s on 11 pills a day.
“A lot of the stress is having to deal with the insurance company,” she said. “The stress will kill you.”
After Sandy, she worked in one of the relief centers. She was also photographed holding a sign that read “Hope.”
“Whenever there’s heavy rains, I get so nervous I start shaking,” she said. “It’ll never leave you.”
She’s not alone. The New Jersey Organizing Project was formed by a group of people who survived Sandy. They recently accumulated surveys from 492 households about what problems they are still facing. A large amount of them were in Ocean and Monmouth counties. More than 70 percent of them reported additional medical or psychological issues, or a worsening of pre-existing conditions since the storm.
“Many individuals described anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders, often in combination with respiratory, cardiovascular, or other conditions,” according to their report, The Long Road Home. It can be found online at NewJerseyOP.com. “Many people also described an increased dependence on alcohol, tobacco products, or drugs. Of families with children, nearly 40 percent reported that their children’s school performance suffered because of the difficulties their family has faced since the storm.”
The full report outlines a score of issues that were left unresolved: people still dealing with contractors or the government, and 57 percent of them saying they think that this could happen again because towns are not prepared.
The report suggests solutions such as:
Construction on the shore, like in this Toms River neighborhood, is common to see five years after Sandy. (Photo by Chris Lundy)There was a great outpouring of mental health help immediately after Sandy, said Dr. Adrienne Sessler-Belli, director of the disaster and terrorism branch of the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Department of Health.
There were hundreds of counselors throughout the state deployed at shelters and other places to talk to people, she said. Some counselors were people who also were impacted, trained to help their neighbors and who knew what they were going through.
The counselors were a part of a program called New Jersey Hope and Healing. They went to different places in the community where impacted people were likely to be. It ended in February of 2014, giving way to other groups like New Jersey Mental Health Cares. They met people directly, and manned a hotline, having logged more than half a million residents served.
“We are aware that, after a disaster, there are different phases,” she said. “With the scope of Sandy, it becomes a more complicated recovery process.”
In the long term, some programs close, and the funding does dry up, she said.
Anniversaries are a difficult time for people, she said. The hurricane coverage in the news brings up a lot of memories and emotions.
There are some people who are overwhelmed with anxiety and other symptoms immediately after a catastrophe, but are eventually able to go back to a sense of normalcy without any great impact on their lives, she said. There are some who are not able to, and who still need to reach out for help.
“Everyone responds differently. Never judge one person’s reaction,” she said.
New Jersey has a team responding to the Virgin Islands, and they are reporting back a very similar situation of what was seen after Sandy, she said.
If you need help dealing with Sandy, reach out to New Jersey Mental Health Cares at 1-866-202-HELP.
(Photo courtesy of Toms River Township)McAvoy said that the coverage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused her anxiety, as news reports continually poured in about how devastating they were going to be. And then afterward, the images of the destruction hit a little close to home.
Indeed, even news reports like the one you’re reading right now might trigger some anxiety about people who lived through the disaster.
Jared Klein, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, said his group performed “post-event review” to see how they communicated about Sandy. It led to a policy change a year later in order to more accurately describe storms of that level so that it would not be confusing.
“It’s very important for a forecaster to put it into perspective,” he said. If there is something that happened in recent memory, like Sandy, then the forecaster should compare it to that so people know what kind of storm they are dealing with. This helps the public and media understand what kind of storm is coming.
One effect that came from Sandy is that people take storm warnings more seriously. There is less “oh, this can’t happen here.”
KIYC: Some banks unwilling to comply with Sandy assistance
MIDDLETOWN -New Jersey passed a law this year guaranteeing mortgage assistance to some Sandy-impacted homeowners. But a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds banks and mortgage companies are often unwilling to comply, and the law lacks a mechanism to punish them.
Five years after Sandy, Angel Eguaras, of Ventnor, doesn’t know when he will be back home. His contractor is accused of fraud and his house has failed inspection nine times. So Eguaras thought he’d finally caught a break when he was state-certified for a mortgage forbearance. Under the law, he qualified for no payments until July 2019, with no additional interest, fees or balloon payments. The loan would simply be frozen and extended.
But his bank, Chase, wouldn’t comply. Eguaras says when he called his relationship manager, “She says she doesn't know of any state program, and ‘I don't care about a state program.’”
Instead, Chase would only offer Eguaras a six-month forbearance, followed by a balloon payment to bring the account current.
“I’d save $1,800 a month, but at the end, I’d have to pay over $10,000?” Eguaras asks incredulously. “Does that makes sense?”
He turned the offer down.
Kane In Your Corner found Eguaras is not alone.
To understand how long Jim and Carol Ferraioli, of Middletown, have had to make payments on a home in which they can’t live, you need only look at Jim’s son, Anthony, who started high school the month before Sandy. He’s now 19. Standing outside the empty shell of his former home, Anthony Ferraioli says, “I still come here certain days. I just drive past it. It's hard to look at each time.”
For the past 2 ½ years, the family’s house has literally been up in the air. A contractor began a house-lifting project, then abandoned it, leaving the house suspended on blocks. Over time, the joists have begun to bow and splinter.
Jim Ferraioli is also state-certified for forbearance, which he says would “make a world of difference.” He says the savings might even allow him to restore his house.
But Ferraioli’s mortgage company, Mr. Cooper, a division of Nationstar, has not committed to granting the forbearance the law requires. Instead, it’s begun foreclosing on the property, something the law specifically forbids.
Some who work with Sandy homeowners say uncooperative lenders are a chronic problem. “Since the rollout of this legislation, there hasn't been a week that's passed where we haven't gotten three or more calls from people who are struggling to get their banks to follow the law,” says Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project.
Part of the problem may be the wording of the law itself. While it clearly spells out homeowners’ rights and lender responsibilities, it contains no specific penalties for noncompliance. To Jim Ferraioli, “If there’s no penalty, then it means they don’t really have to do it.”
There is good news for Angel Eguaras. Since Kane In Your Corner began questioning Chase, the bank has agreed to place him in a forbearance program in accordance with the conditions of state law. Mr. Cooper declined to comment on the Ferraiolis’ situation, but pledged to speak to the family directly.
But Devecka-Rinear says homeowners should not have to enlist the help of investigative journalists to get what they legally deserve. “It’s the law,” she says. “And I have to follow the law, and you have to follow the law, so the banks should follow the law.”
Crooked contractors: Sandy victims discover no background checks in NJ home improvement by Katie Park
► A loophole in the law allows convicted felons to receive state approval to do home improvement work
► A number of Sandy-affected homeowners who believed the state had done background checks on contractors hired a man who had defrauded others across the nation
► The convicted fraudster ripped off two dozen homeowners and employees for more than $1.8 million. It took the state four years to catch up with him.
TOMS RIVER - Jamie Lawson was practically a part of Mark and Diane Wisniewski’s family.
He made sympathetic phone calls to the couple when their daughter was hospitalized for pregnancy complications. Soon after, he mourned with the family when the Wisniewskis’ grandson, born prematurely, died five days after birth. He donated to the March of Dimes charity in honor of their grandchild.
Nearly five years after Superstorm Sandy hit, Mark and Diane Wisniewski are still in the process of rebuilding their Toms River shown October 29, 2017. They were one of the many victims of fraudulent contractor Jamie Lawson.
And on Christmas Day in 2014, Lawson’s son brought over a bottle of wine as a gift — a thank-you to valued customers from Lawson's company, J&N Construction.
Lawson, 42, was the Wisniewskis’ contractor, hired to lift and renovate their superstorm Sandy-damaged home on Woodhaven Road in the township.
The Wisniewskis thought they had landed an ideal contractor — one who was skilled, trustworthy and compassionate. And so, they paid Lawson, the owner of J&N Construction and Elevation, $115,000 in federal relief funds over several months, starting December 2014 and ending October 2016.
Then the red “Stop Work” order appeared — a sheet of crimson paper plastered in the middle of the work site that was in such shambles it more resembled a war zone than a home under construction.
As he had done in numerous states over the past 20 years, Lawson moved from one natural disaster to another, fleecing homeowners in desperate need for their residences to be fixed.
In New Jersey, in the wake of Sandy, Lawson found his mother lode.
Victims said Lawson properly performed a few jobs once he began business in Brick to give customers a glimpse of his work, then began defrauding residents with abandon. All the while, Lawson was actively registered with the state Division of Consumer Affairs as a home improvement contractor.
“Honestly, he was very, very caring, and that’s how he got into everybody’s lives – to gain his trust.”
In the eyes of homeowners, Lawson's valid registration was the New Jersey seal of approval.
But, because of a loophole in the law, the state never checked if Lawson had a criminal history.
Had criminal background checks been in place at the time Lawson became registered with the state in late 2012, it's unlikely Lawson ever would have been approved — and also unlikely that more than two dozen vulnerable homeowners would have lost more than $1 million in federal and personal funds at the hands of a scam artist.
But even now, five years after Sandy, implementing mandatory background checks on home improvement contractors is not a practice authorized by state law, and officials continue to grapple with accusations of fraud against home improvement contractors.
"There’s got to be some kind of background check," Diane Wisniewski said. "It makes no sense to me. And I think a lot of this can be avoided, and could in the future be avoided, if they change that. That’s important."
It took four years for the law to catch up with Lawson.
Rich Bindell and his wife Allison hired contractor Jamie L. Lawson to repair their superstorm Sandy damaged home. After taking thousands for work performed, Lawson abandoned the project.
In December 2016, Lawson was indicted by an Ocean County grand jury on criminal charges related to his contracting business, in which authorities alleged he took hundreds of thousands of dollars from dozens of homeowners in Monmouth and Ocean counties and partially completed jobs, or not at all.
At the time the indictment was handed up, a spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office said Lawson had also been accused of construction-related offenses in numerous southern states directly related to his contracting business.
Shortly after Lawson was charged in the indictment with theft by failure to make required disposition, money laundering and tampering with public records — in connection to the false home improvement contractor application Lawson submitted in November 2012 — he fled the state and became a fugitive.
It wasn't his first go-around with the law.
James "Jamie" Lawson, a home contractor who is accused of stealing $1.5M from more than a dozen homeowners by agreeing to do work - then bailing, smiles at some of the people he defrauded during his detention hearing in State Superior Court in Toms River Friday, July 7, 2017.
Over the last 20 years, Lawson had been charged dozens of times, extradited on arrest warrants and convicted of various crimes three times, according to court records and court officials in several states. He was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon in North Carolina, violation of a business license in South Carolina and theft of property in Texas. He was charged with theft in numerous states, arson and threats to perform acts of violence in Oklahoma and domestic assault in Tennessee.
Dozens of other charges – misdemeanors and felonies – were dismissed, either because Lawson accepted plea deals, paid restitution and court costs, or because authorities lacked sufficient evidence, court officials said.
“Over the last 20 years, Jamie Lawson was charged dozens of times and convicted three times.”
Six months after Lawson fled New Jersey, he was arrested at an extended-stay motel in Florence, South Carolina, by officers from the U.S. Marshals Service.
Lawson’s lawyer, Keith Oliver, declined to comment for this story.
This month, Lawson pleaded guilty to theft and money laundering and admitted to stealing $1.86 million from more than two dozen homeowners in Monmouth and Ocean counties. Some of the $1.86 million included money that should have been paid to J&N Construction workers in exchange for labor, said William Scharfenberg, senior assistant prosecutor with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. Lawson faces up to 10 years in a state prison. His sentencing date is scheduled for Dec. 1.
“They say he was a professional con man,” Diane Wisniewski said, recalling what investigators told her. “I mean, he practically joined our family. Honestly, he was very, very caring, and that’s how he got into everybody’s lives — to gain his trust.”
In the five years since superstorm Sandy walloped New Jersey, millions of federal dollars were disbursed to homeowners whose houses desperately needed major repairs.
And in the time the money was dispensed, complaints were filed against thousands of home improvement contractors alleging everything from shoddy work to theft.
An Asbury Park Press investigation of New Jersey’s home improvement contracting industry found:
In the deluge of home improvement contractors accused or convicted of fraud, Lawson stood out because of the magnitude of his crimes and a history that showed he defrauded homeowners in other states whose homes had been ruined by tornadoes and hurricanes.
But state records that show how many contractors lied about criminal convictions remain scant.
The Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees contractor registration, denied a public records request asking for a list of people who were found to have lied on the disclosure statement of the home improvement contracting registration. The agency said the Home Improvement Registration Unit “does not keep a list that compiles the type of information you requested.”
Nearly five years after Superstorm Sandy hit, Mark and Diane Wisniewski are still in the process of rebuilding their Toms River shown October 29, 2017. They were one of the many victims of fraudulent contractor Jamie Lawson.
'I can't explain it' In New Jersey, approximately 48,703 home improvement contracting businesses were actively registered with Consumer Affairs as of Oct. 20, according to the Division's registry.
In comparison to other regulated professions under the Division of Consumer Affairs, there were 33 actively registered home elevation contracting businesses, about 12,000 actively registered electrical contracting businesses and about 8,500 HVAC contracting businesses.
In 2016, state authorities cited 136 home improvement contractors and said the contractors’ violations totaled to about $1.9 million in fines and restitution, although not all the cases were resolved. In the same year, the Consumer Affairs brought six civil cases against contractors who allegedly bilked more than 100 customers who needed construction work done on their homes following Sandy. About 99 victims lost $3.8 million in federal relief funds, according to the Division.
The number of citations issued to home improvement contractors was similar for 2015.
In a recent survey conducted by the New Jersey Organizing Project, an Ocean County-based organization that advocates for Sandy victims, 22 percent of people reported they were not yet home.
The survey received 551 responses in total.
“I can't explain why this didn't come up.”
“It is very frustrating at times to see very common-sensical measures not being acted upon,” said Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Ocean, who has been a lawmaker since 2003 and represents southern Ocean County. “Not only are these folks victimized by being abandoned from their homes – to add to that, they are then further victimized by being defrauded."
All of the half-dozen Democratic and Republican state legislators who spoke with or relayed statements to the Press said they did not know why a law requiring home improvement contractors to submit to criminal history background checks was not in place, although numerous jobs – from office workers to nurses, to teachers to fast food cashiers – require some sort of history check.
'It was like a washing machine'In the summer of 2015, Rich and Allison Bindell believed they did their homework before they chose Lawson as their contractor to fix their Cattus Street home, which was pummeled by superstorm Sandy.
Four feet of water had damaged thousands of dollars in property and caused the family to lose everything they had on the first floor of the house located near the Toms River waterfront, Allison Bindell said.
“The water didn’t just come up and rise up,” she said. “It was like a washing machine. So everything that was in my family room was in my washroom.”
After the Bindells saw Lawson was registered with the state and checked out some of Lawson's previous construction work, the Bindells hired him to elevate their house and repair damage.
Paperwork was filed with the township, and in April 2016, the Bindells said they moved out so construction work could start.
Lawson got the house in the air, Rich Bindell said. But then, after making some progress on construction, he said Lawson stopped showing up to work on the house.
Allison Bindell, of Toms River, describes how superstorm Sandy damaged her family's home in October 2012.Katie Park
“I'm out that almost $20,000 - I gotta make that up.”
The Bindells said choosing Lawson was a mistake — a mistake that cost them $99,000, and more than a year out of their home.
The Bindells, who have two children, said they received approximately $80,000 back from the state.
“I’m out that almost $20,000,” Rich Bindell said. “I gotta make that up. So, you know, whatever. That’s coming out of my 401(k), or my savings and everything else. Plus, I got a kid in college. That don’t help. But, you know, makin’ it, slowly.”
The Bindells’ home is now being repaired by Legacy Custom Home Builders, a local company that the Bindells hired this summer. In about a month and a half, the Legacy construction team worked efficiently on the home, to the Bindells’ delight.
But in about three or four months, after an unexpectedly long and stressful journey through state agencies and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, Rich Bindell said he expects his family will move back into their original home.
“God willing,” Allison Bindell added.
'There are enough bad apples'Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, R-Monmouth, thinks New Jersey is an overregulated state. But consumer protection, when it comes to home improvement contracting, is one of the areas she said she wants to strengthen.
In an attempt to bolster home improvement construction statutes, Handlin recently drafted a proposal that would require background checks for home improvement and elevation contractors.
“The industry doesn’t like this notion of painting them all with the same brush,” Handlin said. “I understand that, and I don’t doubt that most of them are responsible and law-abiding, but there are enough bad apples to sour the whole barrel, from the perspective of consumer advocates."
Handlin’s proposal, which likely will not be formally introduced until after the November general election, would require home improvement or home elevation contracting applicants to be fingerprinted. She said the fingerprints would be run through FBI or New Jersey State Police records to check for conviction records.
The applicant would pay the cost of the background check, which would likely be more than $50 but less than $100, Handlin said.
As the proposal currently stands, the background check would apply to the owners of the company, said Leigh Maris, Handlin’s chief of staff.
“The industry doesn't like this notion of painting them all with the same brush.”
Like other legislators, state Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, said she also wants to protect consumers. But Beck said she doesn’t favor background checks.
Ideally, under bills she proposed, Beck said contractors would have to disclose all major corporate owners to the state and establish a $25,000 surety bond to cover any damage or problems that affects the homeowner.
"People assume that because you’re registered that means something," Beck said. "It really doesn’t. It really means very little. It’s very easy to register."
As Beck grapples with steering her bills through the legislative process, she said she wonders if the bills contribute to smart reform or excessive bureaucratic hurdles.
“There is a balance,” Beck said. “But, in this case, the Division of Consumer Affairs can tell you that for clear-cut cases of fraud, that they are oftentimes finding their hands are tied because the statute isn’t strong enough. Then that’s on us to try to figure how to tighten it up.”
Survey details Sandy's continued misery by Mark Di Ionno
You can believe a detailed academic survey of about 500 households, or you can believe your own eyes.
Either way, a nonprofit organization's report card released today on the Hurricane Sandy recovery as the five year anniversary nears says the "storm after the storm" is still very real to many people.
"The storm after the storm" or the "disaster after the disaster" is how many Sandy victims describe their road to recovery. And while the word "road" implies straight and smooth, it is more accurate to say the "obstacle course to recovery."
Think of one of those Tough Mudder races - that's what rehabbing after Sandy has been like for many victims. Bogged down in the deep muck of government paperwork. Climbing the high walls of insurance company obstinance and, in some cases, outright fraud. Walking the balance beams of finding a reliable contractor.
In the hard hit areas of the Barneget and Raritan bays, it is very clear the recovery is far from over. Houses remain boarded or vacant and lots are empty. "For Sale" signs dot the landscape. Construction continues and for every few homes that look rebuilt and inhabited, there is another on the block that continues to languish.
As of Sept. 30, the state Department of Community Affairs, which has handled the Sandy recovery, reports that 2,000 of the 7,572 homeowners in the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation (RREM) program still await a certificate of occupancy (CO) for their homes. Of 386 people in low- and middle-income rebuilding programs, 208 remain without a CO. No CO means you can't go home.
The number of primary homeowners still out of their homes is elusive. The state keeps track only of the people who entered the RREM program, which awarded grants to elevate homes to levels that meet new FEMA flood insurance requirements.
No one is even counting those whose damaged property was a second residence because they are not eligible for any government grants or loans.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear, an experienced activist who lives several steps from the Barnegat Bay on Cedar Bonnet Island, started the New Jersey Organizing Project (NJOP) in 2014 to advocate for Sandy victims stuck in the morass of the recovery.
"It's impossible to tell how many people are still out," she said. "There were estimates that 50,000 homeowners and renters were forced from their primary homes after the storm. At one point, the state said there were 12,000 people in RREM. Where did they all go?"
Earlier this year, her organization attempted to find out. Volunteers spread out in the most impacted areas with detailed questionnaires about Sandy victims' recovery experiences. Surveys were done in Toms River, Union Beach, Beach Haven West, Ortley Beach, Atlantic City, and four other devastated areas. In many cases, volunteers interviewed people directly. Overall, several thousand people had access to the survey.
NJOP received 551 responses, not a huge sampling, but enough to draw some attention to the success of the recovery house-to-house. The 56-page report, issued by the New Jersey Resource Project, is titled "The Long Road Home: Superstorm Sandy Still Taking a Toll Five Years Later." Among the findings are:
Jessica Limbacher, from Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, is one of the authors of the survey and has represented several hundred Sandy victims.
"One of the most important things we have learned - and which this survey confirms - is that people need ongoing assistance, even now five years later," she said.
The point of the survey, Devecka-Rinear said, it not just to quantify misery. It's to help the federal, state and local governments prepare for the next time - and even help navigate the recoveries of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
"Our communities learned these lessons the hard way," she said. "We have solutions to help New Jersey families and make sure no one in any state has to go through what we have. Shame on us if we don't listen."
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