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Construction fraud up slightly after Harvey

State, county and city officials who track cases of contractor fraud in post-Hurricane Harvey repairs and rebuilds are surprised at the low numbers so far reported, more than five months after the storm made landfall.

But for homeowners who gave money to contractors who never did the repair work promised, the damage is monumental.

Joey Kukuch, who lives on Bayridge Drive in League City, turned to a contractor he knew for years and trusted when he needed repairs on his flooded home. Kukuch gave the contractor money on Oct. 13, 2017, but the work they agreed on was never done, he said.

The $12,750 Kukuch gave the contractor came from his Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster assistance, Kukuch said.

After trying to resolve the issue and getting the runaround, Kukuch went to the League City Police Department on Jan. 9. The police report describes the crime as theft of service.

UP SLIGHTLY

League City doesn’t have a specific number of how many post-Harvey contractor fraud cases they are handling. That’s partly because complaints can fall into many different categories, police spokesman Kelly Williamson said.

“As expected, after a natural disaster like Harvey there has been an increase in consumer-contractor disputes,” Williamson said.

The Galveston County District Attorney’s office, however, is closely monitoring contractor fraud. Robert Buss, an assistant criminal district attorney in charge of the major fraud office, tracks complaints and looks for patterns of fraud.

In League City, the police are investigating two such incidents, Buss said. He is also aware of one case that the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office is investigating as well as one that Dickinson police are investigating.

“I expect more cases are coming,” Buss said.

Friendswood police report no complaints of contractor fraud or theft of service since Harvey, spokeswoman Lisa Price said.

Dickinson police have seen a slight increase in such cases, spokesman Tim Cromie said.

“The majority of the cases are civil,” Cromie said. “There was not an intent to defraud.”

Dickinson police have also had complaints from contractors complaining about homeowners who are not paying for work done, Cromie said.

Buss is investigating two other cases that law enforcement agencies in the county assumed would be civil matters. His office also researches civil cases filed to see if those involve any contractor fraud.

LOOKS FOR PATTERNS

Contractor fraud is criminal when a contractor takes the money and knows the work won’t be done, Buss said. It can also be criminal if part of the work is done but not everything is completed, he said.

Determining which cases are criminal takes a lot of work. Buss collects bank records, credit reports and other data from other accounts. It takes 30 to 40 days to get those records. Then he sifts through the numbers and looks for patterns.

“It’s a whole lot of hurry up and wait,” Buss said.

After Hurricane Ike in 2008, complaints came into the district attorney’s office a year after the disaster. Some went through the civil court process first, with homeowners suing contractors then later filing criminal complaints, Buss said.

The statute of limitations is five years for contractor fraud cases, Buss said. Those involving more than $2,500 are felonies while those less than $2,500 are misdemeanors.

After Ike, Galveston County prosecutors argued cases against 34 contractors who committed multiple cases of contractor fraud, Buss said. Of the 34, 11 were accused of committing multiple felonies and 23 were accused of committing multiple misdemeanors.

Some cases were dismissed because of insufficient evidence while others were dismissed because the contractor paid the money back to the victim.

Because of those Ike cases, the district attorney’s office started the major fraud department to have a staff who could specialize in the details of proving fraud cases, Buss said.

VERBAL AGREEMENT

The Texas Attorney General’s office also tracks post-Harvey contractor fraud, spokeswoman Kayleigh Lovvorn said.

But FEMA does not track or have any oversight over contractor fraud, spokesman Jose Jimenez said.

“We give grants to disaster survivors, who then decide how to best use the funds to repair their dwellings,” Jimenez said.

FEMA recommends that disaster survivors use licensed contractors for any work done on their dwellings and that survivors get a detailed, written estimate before any work begins, he said.

While Kukuch did use a licensed contractor, he didn’t get a written estimate or a written agreement, he said.

“It was a guy I considered a friend,” Kukuch said. “We had a verbal agreement.”

Buss encourages homeowners with contractor complaints to file paperwork with authorities so he can compare data and find patterns of fraud.

“If people believe they’ve been cheated, they should call law enforcement,” Buss said. “If they don’t get anywhere with them, they can follow up with us.”


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centerpiece
Rain can't stop some Galveston Mardi Gras traditions

A gray sky and a constant threat of rain hung over Galveston on Saturday.

For that reason, Cindy Anthony said she was thankful for the Mardi Gras tradition her family started 20 years ago: renting a two-bedroom hotel room at Gaido’s Seaside Inn on Seawall Boulevard.

On Saturday, just an hour before the kickoff of the first parade down Seawall, the room was packed with friends and family members feasting on fried chicken and desserts.

“It had to be 1998 or 1999, we just flat can’t remember,” Cindy Anthony said. “We used to have a flatbed and one year the weather was really bad. We were barbecuing in the rain and we decided ‘That’s it, we have to get a room.’”

For two decades now, that room on the bottom floor of the hotel has been Mardi Gras central for the family. Children have grown up, and some of the frequent celebrants are no longer around to join in. A cake in the room was dedicated to a beloved aunt who always brought sweets to the party.

The tradition is so ingrained that there’s not a lot of preplanning that has to happen to get a good crowd.

“It’s the same Bat-time on the same Bat-channel,” she said.

Seawall Boulevard is typically seen as the center of Mardi Gras on the first weekend of Mardi Gras. Two large parades, put on by the Krewe of Aquarius and the Krewe of Gambrinus, travel down the Gulfside highway before making a turn for the paid-entry downtown district.

The parades draw hundreds of spectators, even on a dreary February day like Saturday, where temperatures stayed in the 50s and rain occasionally fell on the crowds.

Despite the weather, the party was still on along the street, where many people started claiming prime parking spots early Friday morning. Some showed up even earlier and ate the cost of the over-parking tickets the city handed out.

Mark Reagan, a Santa Fe resident, said his group of 60 family members have been setting up on Seawall Boulevard for 10 years.

“It looks a little smaller,” he said about the pre-noon crowd. “But they’ll be here for the parade, and then they’ll disappear.”

His setup included a professional-style grill set up on the back of a trailer, and a row of tents with tables and chairs set up underneath them. Underneath the Mardi Gras beads, some from the party were bundled up in winter coats and hats, and in one case, a full-body insulated camouflage coverall.

They planned to tough out the weather, which way the wind blows.

“We’ve been here years before where it rains,” he said. “You just bring more canopies.”

Farther down the street, Josh Stanford was setting up cooking rabbit and his boudin. From Pearland, and originally from Louisiana, Stanford said his family had started renting a house near the seawall and spending Mardi Gras in Galveston two years ago.

“It’s a good family event, and the kids love the floats and catching the beads,” he said.

There was never a question that his family would avoid Mardi Gras this year, he said.

“We were going to come regardless,” he said. “It’s tradition now.”

Forecasts called for a warmer day today, with partly sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s.

The second weekend of Mardi Gras festivities will begin Friday. Early forecasts for that day from the National Weather Service in League City warned of a possibly rougher time, with thunderstorms possible Friday night and Saturday.


Free
Police identify man shot, killed in Texas City

TEXAS CITY

Police on Saturday were searching for the man who shot and killed a Texas City man, and wounded a woman following a shooting in the early hours of the morning.

Kendrae Jones, 32, of Texas City, was shot and killed in the 5100 block of FM 1765 at 2:17 a.m., Texas City police said.

A 25-year-old woman was also shot in the leg. She was in stable condition, but remained in the hospital late Saturday, police said.

No one was immediately arrested in relation to the homicide, the first reported killing in Texas City this year. On Saturday afternoon, Texas City police spokesman Cpl. Mel Villareal said detectives had identified a person of interest, but no one was in custody.

Only a few details were released about what happened before the shooting.

Police said Jones and an unidentified man got into an altercation at a bar in the 900 block of Texas Avenue in La Marque. Investigators did not know on Saturday what started the fight. The men ultimately ended up on the other side of Texas Avenue, inside Texas City limits.

That’s where Jones and the woman, who has not been identified, were shot. Police on Saturday said the woman was an innocent bystander and was not involved in the altercation.

Both Jones and the woman were brought to the Mainland Medical Center in Texas City where he was pronounced dead.

Police did not provide a description of the shooter, who fled the scene in an unidentified vehicle.

The homicide is the first reported in Texas City this year. The last reported homicide in the city was in May 2016, when a man was shot dead on a dead-end street off FM 1765 following an argument. That shooting happened at an address just a mile away from Saturday’s incident.

The shooting is still under investigation. Police asked anyone with information about the incident to call Crime Stoppers at 409-945-8477 or Texas City Police Det. Robert Wiley at 409-643-5831.