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The inside story

Barn of broken dreams


May 10, 2011

By Selena Davis, guest contributor

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Before her contractor started work on Tina Cox’s project, he asked for half of the money up front – that alone should have been a red flag.

“I wrote him a check because he said work would start the following Monday,” said Tina, a Toutle foster mom of five.

Professional contractors say they typically collect funds as work is completed. The first step in making sure you are dealing with a professional is checking www.Lni.wa.gov to confirm the person you hire is registered, bonded and insured.

In Tina’s case, the contractor had already done some small work around her river-bank property and gained her trust.

The check was cashed but the contractor did not start work on Monday. In fact, nobody showed up at Tina’s house for two weeks. When she called, she was always promised work would start the next day or given an excuse.

“I can’t tell you how much heartache this project has caused,” she said.

Tina dreamed of constructing a pole barn that would double as a dog kennel and a training center. She wanted to make the facility available for foster children to work with her specially-trained german shepherds.

“The dogs are so good for children,” Tina said.

Tina found her contractor in a phonebook advertisement. In the ad, the contractor claimed to be bonded and insured. Tina thought she was being careful.

“I got multiple bids,” she said. “He wasn’t the highest. He wasn’t the lowest. He was in the middle. It seemed a fair price for the job; and I trusted it would get done. ”

But no homeowner should go just with trust. Tina was unaware that L&I is Washington State’s authority in contractor registration. She checked with the city to ensure he had a business license, but a business license alone does not mean the contractor has insurance and a bond in case something goes wrong with a project.

At the start of her project, Tina agreed to pay the contractor $12,000 to pour the foundation concrete and assemble the pole barn.

What was supposed to be a two-week job turned into a multi-month nightmare. The contractor himself did not appear on the job site again, instead sending unknown “associates” to do small jobs like removing stumps and area prep work.

Tina found the pace and quality of work not up to par. Materials went missing from the job site, leaving Tina to repurchase many supplies. The foundation concrete was not poured properly, and Tina now has multiple drainage issues. She says she was even verbally abused when she questioned the contractor about his work.

Frustrated, city authorities advised Tina to file a complaint with the Department of Labor & Industries.

“Unfortunately, we usually see angry homeowners when they are mid-project and things aren’t going how they expected,” said L&I’s Carl Hammersburg, Fraud Prevention & Compliance Manager. “If consumers did more research on their prospective contractor before writing them a check, they can often save themselves a lot of headaches.”

Tina was surprised to discover a simple L&I contractor look-up search showed her contractor was working with a suspended registration, and he had multiple liens against him from other dissatisfied customers. His bond and insurance had been canceled, making it harder for her to collect for her damages.

This kind of information is available to any homeowner considering hiring a contractor. It is good information to know up front, and it can be a helpful indicator of whether you can expect a job well done.

Tina’s barn was eventually finished, by other contractors she had to pay again. It has multiple issues, including poor drainage, uneven concrete floors, and it leaks. She says it would never get approval to be the dog kennel she dreamed it would be.

“I cry when I think about what this project was supposed to have been,” Tina said.


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An ounce of prevention … may save you thousands!


May 17, 2011

KIRO-TV did a great story last week about the importance of checking to see that your contractor really is registered, bonded, and insured.

In this case, consumers paid the contractor half the job estimate up front. Only when the contractor failed to show up did they check out the L&I website for her registration status, discovering the contractor not only was not properly registered but had multiple unsettled judgments against her.

Don’t let this happen to you—check out your contractor before you hire them, and pay as work is completed.  Follow our recommended guidelines at HiringAContractor.lni.wa.gov.


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Tree service finds itself out on a limb


November 17, 2011

[Editor’s note:  The video previously linked to this story is no longer available from the content provider. You can still read the transcript of the story on the KNDU/KNDO website]

I’m late thanking KNDU TV, Yakima, for their story on an (alleged) unscrupulous tree service operator who ripped-off customers, taking their hard-earned money then failing to do the work. I especially appreciate their mention of L&I’s online tool for checking out your contractor before you hire them! That’s good advice.

If Johnny Brown’s alleged victims had searched his name on our website, they would have learned he has never had a contractor registration in the state of Washington.

We’ve said it before: being a registered contractor is not a guarantee of quality work, but it does ensure the contractor is bonded and insured, giving the consumer some recourse should something go wrong in the job.

And I’m betting in tree removal services, a lot could go wrong. Would you want a guy with no insurance felling a tree near your home?

At the very minimum, a tree service contractor in Washington needs to be registered as a specialty contractor, carrying a minimum of $250,000 of insurance and a $6000 bond.

Be an informed consumer! Check out any contractor performing work on your property!


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Mulinski goes to trial in Montana


December 6, 2011

You probably remember the case against John Mulinski, the King County contractor facing 17 counts of theft after taking deposits for work he allegedly didn’t complete. 

Mulinski is facing charges in Montana for pulling the same scam, and his trial there starts this week. Check out the update on this story from KING5’s Jesse Jones.


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Home-improvement season triggers look at repairs gone wrong


March 7, 2012

Two local television reports expose risks involved in routine home-repair projects. KOMO TV exposes the hazards of hiring a contractor without first checking their registration and references. KING TV’s Jesse Jones looks at the consequences of misplaced trust. Check out L&I’s tips and tools for homeowners to protect themselves and their investment from these and other dangers, before you too get your 15 seconds of fame the hard way!


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Painter takes plea, promises restitution in fraud case


June 15, 2012

A Pierce County painting contractor who failed to pay his workers’ compensation premiums and had his contractor license revoked, continued to work illegally — using another company’s equipment to complete his jobs, and having his sister pose as the owner of that company to hide his illegal activities.

Back in August 2009, an L&I Contractor Compliance Inspector visited a jobsite in Tacoma, finding 2 men at work for Michael Bonilla. After discovering the Bonilla Custom Painting’s contractor registration had been revoked, the inspector fined Bonilla, sharing that information with regional audit and investigations staff.

Mr. Bonilla’s workers’ comp account had been revoked in March 2007 for failing to pay more than $11,000 in premiums. Since anyone who has employees must have workers’ comp insurance, Mr. Bonilla couldn’t legally hire workers. But L&I now knew that Mr. Bonilla had hired several people after his account was revoked.

L&I investigators learned that one of those employees, under Mr. Bonilla’s guidance, obtained a contractor’s license, opened her own painting business, and hired Mr. Bonilla as a foreman. She understood that Bonilla would teach her the business and use his contacts for jobs.

Bonilla took advantage of that relationship to use the company van and equipment, without the owner’s knowledge, to complete jobs he had begun under his own revoked business.

Because his own contractor registration and workers’ comp account were revoked, Bonilla then had his sister impersonate his employer to set up jobs that Mr. Bonilla would then do without the actual owner’s involvement.

Bonilla pleaded guilty in Pierce County Superior Court last month to false reporting and doing business without workers’ comp coverage or valid contractor registration. As part of the plea, 2 class‑C felonies were reduced to gross misdemeanors. He also agreed to pay $3,085 in restitution, perform 240 hours of community service and serve 2 years’ probation.


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