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14 Unlicensed Contractors Caught in ‘Sting’ Operation : Law enforcement: State investigators go undercover to arrest group of masons and landscapers in Palmdale. They face fines as high as $1,000 and year in jail.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Investigators for the Contractors State License Board conducting an undercover “sting” lured 14 masons and landscapers to a house in Palmdale this week on the pretext of hiring them, then arrested them for allegedly working without a contractors license.

The investigators targeted workers whose names were provided by licensed contractors angry at being underbid by unlicensed competitors, said an official of the state licensing board.

“They are tired of losing jobs to these individuals,” said Dennis Bishop, supervising deputy of the board’s Unlicensed Activity Unit. “They operate on a little lower monetary level as far as their bids are concerned.”

The unit, formed in October, 1989, has conducted 15 similar undercover operations in Southern California this year, Bishop said. The operation in Palmdale netted the largest number of arrests in the unit’s history, and was the first in the Antelope Valley, where the booming construction business attracts unlicensed contractors.

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In the Palmdale sting, investigators took names and phone numbers they received from irate licensed contractors in the area and made 21 appointments over a three-day period, from Tuesday to Thursday, at a house borrowed for the operation. When a contractor arrived, one of the investigators posing as the owner described landscaping or masonry work he wanted done, and the contractor made a bid on the job.

“We ask them for a contract, and they write it up,” Bishop said. When the contractor was unable to provide a license number, he was placed under arrest by one of two members of the unit who are sworn peace officers.

Some of the contractors provided false numbers, which the investigators easily identified by checking records in Sacramento by phone.

Fourteen people were arrested, and if convicted for the misdemeanor offense face fines of as much as $1,000 and a year in jail. The arrested were released on their own recognizance and will be arraigned in Antelope Valley Municipal Court on Jan. 3 and 4.

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Unlicensed contractors can work for less because they usually pay their employees in cash, and often do not pay taxes or have worker’s compensation insurance, Bishop said. The consumer may lose in the long run, he said, because the licensing board can make a contractor redo a shoddy job, but the only recourse against unlicensed contractors is to sue.

In addition, because many unlicensed contractors have no worker’s compensation insurance, the homeowner becomes liable for injuries to the workers.

Contracting industry spokesmen praised the board for the crackdown.

“The unlicensed people are part of the underground economy,” said Mike Leeson, executive vice president of the American Building Contractors Assn., noting that they are not required to pay many of the fees or post the $5,000 bond licensed contractors must shoulder. “They’re the scum of the earth.”

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Said Dave Burwell, vice president of the High Desert Chapter of the California Landscaping Contractors Assn.: “It’s not that unlicensed people are bad people, because some of them really do nice work.” But, he added, “most people that are involved in landscape scams do not have a license.”


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