KSL Investigates: A Warning About Unlicensed, Illegal Contractors
PLEASANT GROVE, Utah — More than two months after Kyle Bowen began the process of remodeling a home on his newly-purchased property, he said the job quickly became a larger, unexpected repair job.
Bowen said after he closed on his new home on Sept. 18, he wanted to install some new flooring and have some painting done since some of the finishes that he felt were a bit outdated.
“I was looking around online, and I found this guy via Facebook. And anyway, he came over and gave me a bid and he was a little on the low end, but in line with some of the other people,” Bowen said. “He seemed honest, and he was prompt and responsive, so I hired him.”
The man who reached out to Bowen on Facebook was Clayton Austin Sweat, 26, of ATD Flooring and Construction. Bowen signed a contract with Sweat and his company on Sept. 20.
Bowen said he paid Sweat $14,000 and work started. Five days later, Bowen wrote another check to Sweat for $10,000.
Although the work had begun, Bowen said it was sporadic.
Soon, he noticed mismatched brick on the façade of the home, tire ruts through his lawn and carpet paid for — but nowhere to be found.
“Every day I came home and there didn’t seem to be really much done. One day I came home and about half of the basement flooring was finished, but that was probably the most progress I ever saw on a given day. And it continued that way,” Bowen said. “Then we started to get a little suspicious why work wasn’t happening as fast as we thought it might.”
That’s when Bowen started looking up Sweat online and said he found several surprises – including a handful of mugshots.
It turned out that Sweat was not a licensed contractor.
“When you see a contract that says here’s my contractor number, here’s my insurance policy number and at the bottom you see contractor signature, to me, that would say he’s a bona fide contractor, when in fact, he was not,” Bowen said.
The license number on that contract turned out to be the number for Sweat’s business license.
“He gave me a contract,” Bowen said. “But the number that he provided on the contract was not a contractor number even though he represented himself as one.”
In fact, the KSL Investigators discovered the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, or DOPL, had cited Sweat four times for contracting without a license and has charged him $3,800 in total fines. Fines Sweat had not paid.
“It is against the law to even advertise that you can perform construction without a contractor’s license,” said DOPL Director Mark Steinagel.
Steinagel spoke in general terms about citations the division puts in place against unlicensed contractors.
“It’s a progressive fine amount. So, the first one is $500, the second one is $1,000, and we usually don’t even go to a third one because by then we’re talking about criminal prosecution,” he said.
DOPL referred Sweat for criminal charges in multiple cities in Utah. Those included contracting without a license, a felony charge of theft by deception and at one point, Sweat spent time in jail for violating probation on a theft charge.
KSL TV obtained five mugshots for Sweat in Utah County related to that single theft charge, to which he pleaded guilty in 2013. The first mugshot corresponds to his initial booking on the charge. Four additional mugshots were taken for probation violations on that charge.
Sweat was booked into the Weber County Jail in August 2018 after a warrant was issued relating to his engaging in the construction trade without a license charge, a class B misdemeanor.
He pleaded guilty in November 2018.
Multiple small claims cases have also been filed against Sweat.
The KSL Investigators reached out to Sweat on multiple occasions seeking an on-camera interview for our story. He ultimately never made himself available, but on the phone said that while he has a history of “bad business decisions,” he never intended to take money and not do work.
Referring to Bowen’s case specifically, Sweat said he quit after conflicts with Bowen. Sweat said he’s refunded Bowen $7,500 so far and is doing what he can to refund the rest.
When asked why he didn’t obtain a contractor license, Sweat told the KSL Investigators it was a financial burden to do so, saying it is expensive.
KSL TV also verified that Sweat’s insurance policy had lapsed for non-payment.
Bowen has taken legal action and filed a small claims suit against Sweat. Bowen said he hopes others will learn from his mistakes and do their homework first.
“Unfortunately, it’s been a little bit of an expensive lesson,” he said. “I think it ultimately was probably my fault because I didn’t do as much due diligence as I should have.”
“We are in a system where both the government can do some things to help you and also, you as a consumer need to do some things to help you,” Steinagel added.
DOPL: Consumers Tips on Choosing a Licensed Contractor
According to the Utah Department of Commerce’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, internet bulletin boards and online classified advertisements may allow for businesses to be deceptive and DOPL officials said consumers should be aware of that.
Steinagel said the main concept is for consumers to “own their project,” in terms of making sure they hire a qualified service provider, plan their project appropriately, seek out multiple estimates and make certain those they hire are licensed to receive the protections licensing provides to the public.
Steinagel also advised consumers to monitor the work as it progresses and make sure it is in line with the signed contract.
DOPL officials suggested consumers take these steps when seeking a bid for contracting work:
- Verify the contractor or business is actively licensed with the state of Utah
- Always hire a licensed contractor so you can file a complaint if something goes wrong in the business transaction
- Request three written estimates to compare
- Check at least three references with former customers
- Check with materials suppliers on which contractors/companies they would recommend
- Require a written contract to protect yourself and your property against liens
- Don’t make a large down payment; pay as work is completed
- Monitor the job in progress
- Don’t make the final payment until the job is completed per the terms of your contract
- Keep copies of all paperwork related to your job
“Good contractors are going to be willing to work with you through that and those who are unable to start a project without demanding a large down payment would make me worried about their financial capability to complete the project,” Steinagel said. “The good contractors are going to be happy, happy to help you protect yourself. The ones who get very upset at you wanting to do these things, well, there’s an extra warning flag for you.”
#Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing nabs 96 unlicensed #contractors with fines of $543K in statewide sting and coordinated enforcement effort @NASCLA to fight #fraud. Investigators searched #socialmedia #onlineclassifieds More; https://t.co/ZxTKFg9Tza #utpol pic.twitter.com/CAyMaBXsEs
— commerce.utah.gov (@UtahCommerce) July 17, 2019
Each year, DOPL officials complete a construction fraud sting to protect the public and penalize unlicensed contractors across Utah.
This summer’s effort was part of a national sting that resulted in 96 administrative citations and $543,000 in state fines. The three-week investigation targeted unlicensed contractors advertising online and across various social media platforms. The sting was focused on online advertising to tackle fraudulent transactions on the web, which has become increasingly common.
“The primary goal of the sting was to help the public know that we are looking out for them and to help those who want to be in the industry know that you need to come in in the legal, lawful way, and we will help you get there,” Steinagel said. “There will always be fraudsters. I don’t think we could ever create an environment where it’s so regulated that people can’t hurt the public. That’s why we exist.”
To file a complaint, verify the license of a professional or check on whether a licensee has faced disciplinary action, consumers can visit the DOPL website for more information.
More consumer information is also available on the Utah Division of Consumer Protection’s website.
For more information from the National Association of Contracting Licensing Agencies, click here.