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State Board’s Agent 007 Hunts Predatory Unlicensed Contractors : Law enforcement: Laguna Beach and Malibu wildfires have been followed by a spate of violations.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Meet Agent 007. He doesn’t have a license to kill, but unlicensed contractors could find themselves in jail if he catches them in the act.

His latest field of operations has been the charred acres of Laguna Beach and Malibu where fire-stricken homeowners are being romanced by dozens of unauthorized workers eager for cleanup and reconstruction jobs.

The problem: It’s illegal. In fact, contracting without a license in a disaster zone is a felony, and the holder of Badge No. 007, otherwise known as Senior Investigator Dan Hitt, was on the job one day recently at the end of Carbon Mesa Road in Malibu.

Dressed in lizard-skin boots, blue jeans and a black leather jacket from the Hard Rock Cafe in Newport Beach, he was posing as the out-of-town owner of an ocean-view garage that lost its roof in the fires. Only his car, a dusty, state-owned compact, did not fit the image.

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One prospect declined to take the bait and drove away. But with a little coaxing, Hitt got two unlicensed operators to give him written estimates and accept $1,000 checks to start the demolition.

Then came the clincher. By the way, he asked, are you licensed?

Both claimed to have partners whose licenses were up to date, but that was the wrong answer. The law requires that all partners be licensed.

“Why are you guys trying to make me look like a bad guy? I’m not a bad guy,” said one suspect, Mehrded Shahafi of Malibu. “I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong.”

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“You just can’t do it,” Hitt replied. “We want you either out of the business as unlicensed, or to get a license. That’s the way it’s got to be.”

Hitt, one of three peace officers on the staff of the Contractors State License Board, handcuffed the suspects, read them their rights and handed them over to Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies waiting in an unmarked car down the street.

A similar sting early this month picked up five violators in fire-ravaged Laguna Beach, where 366 homes were destroyed.

Several residents complained to police about would-be scam artists attempting to prey on them, said Laguna Beach Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. After contacting the Contractors State Licensing Board, Laguna Beach police and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department arrested the five in the Emerald Bay community and elsewhere in Laguna Beach.

“We got in touch (with the state) when we started feeling we did have some rip-off artists at work,” Purcell said.

There have been no more complaints, Purcell said. Yet he warned that there may be other unlicensed contractors out there awaiting new business. “Those were the ones we caught,” he said. “But I think we had quite a bit more than that.”

Purcell said he thinks the sting operation in his city has put a damper on illegal construction work. As word of the arrests traveled through the isolated, seaside community, the unlicensed contractors started moving out.

“A lot of guys think they’re just businessmen out to make a buck, but they don’t understand the gravity of not complying with the law,” said Hitt.

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Unregulated contractors generally do not bother getting liability insurance or workers’ compensation coverage, he said, and homeowners have little recourse if the workers abandon the job or do shoddy work.

The agency was alerted to the situation by local contractors who were upset by a rash of flyers and newspaper advertisements offering cut-rate demolition and repair in the weeks after the firestorm that claimed 350 homes in Malibu and the surrounding area.

“We call them carpetbaggers,” said Richard N. Sherman, a member of the Malibu Assn. of Contractors.

“I pay $2,500 a month in liability insurance and workers’ comp comes to around $2,000 . . . and I hate to see someone go around and nickel-and-dime me out of work and not have to pay that,” he said.

Up to one-third of the contractors who showed up at community meetings held in the weeks after the fires either listed fictitious license numbers or did not bother to claim they were licensed, he said.

Strangely enough, Hitt and his backup team of two civilian deputy registrars found themselves busy despite Malibu’s decision earlier this month to have a Ventura company clear all the home sites that had not been cleaned up yet.

“Greed is the operating motive,” said Dennis Bishop, the license board’s supervising deputy for Southern California. “Most of these guys want to bid on the reconstruction, too.”

There are about 260,000 licensed contractors statewide and at least that many unregulated mavericks, he said.

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With construction at a virtual halt, “you’ve got all those people out there trying to make a living the only way they know how,” he said.

Contracting without a license is normally a misdemeanor, but if it happens in a disaster zone, violators face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Times staff writer James M. Gomez contributed to this report.


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