Consumers lobby legislators for protection from crooked contractors

February 24, 2018 08:10 AM

Here in Rochester, any convicted felon can own and operate a home contracting business without a background check. That’s not the case just down the road in Buffalo.  So we’ve profiled two felons who have been convicted for stealing thousands from unsuspecting customers.   Both are contractors who worked in the Rochester area.  But Buffalo and half a dozen other cities and counties would ask tough questions before allowing any felon to work as a contractor.
Monroe County’s small claims courts rarely have a visit from the media, so everyone wanted to know why News10NBC’s consumer investigator Deanna Dewberry was there along with a photojournalist.  The curious crowd would soon find out when Alvis Sprague and his live-in girlfriend Sarah Crawford walked through the elevator doors.

It took little to raise the ire of Sprague, a contractor and four-time felon that Dewberry has been investigating for five months.  His face reddened with each of her questions, and soon he was screaming. 

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“Tell her to leave me alone,” he screamed at approaching deputies. “Can I have my personal space?  Can you remove her from over here?”

“This is a public space sir," Dewberry responded.  Deputies whisked him into court where a mediator was waiting to hear his small claims case.  Sprague is being sued by customer Susan Sipes.  She paid him almost $17,000 remodel her condo in Canandaigua.  It was supposed to be finished November 10th of last year.    
News10NBC first introduced audiences to Sipes, who lives in Seattle, after she flew to upstate New York last November expecting to find a finished condo.  Instead she found a toilet in the kitchen, dangerous dangling wires, and her contractor was demanding more money.   News10NBC began investigating Sprague in October of 2016.  We learned he was sent to prison in 2008 for scamming a dozen customers.  After he got out of prison, he had a new contracting business with a new name and made his live-in girlfriend, Sarah Crawford, the owner.
Crawford is named in Sipes’ lawsuit, so Dewberry asked her questions as well.  Crawford put an envelope over her face and refused to respond.  It seemed no one wanted to answer Dewberry’s persistent questions about a 2007 court order against Al Sprague filed by the New York Attorney General. 

“There was an order against you that disallowed you from ever working as a contractor in the state of New York,” Dewberry said.

“Right now we're going to the Attorney General's office. We're dealing with the Attorney General's office at this time,” Sprague answered.
Sprague is indeed dealing with the Attorney General's office.  After News10NBC’s initial investigation of Sprague in November, the Attorney General and the Ontario county sheriff's office began investigations of their own.
As for Sipes, she had to hire a new contractor to finish the condo which cost an additional $8,000. 

“Would it have been helpful for you if contractors were licensed and you could look up licensing information?” Dewberry asked Sipes.

“Oh my gosh, yes!” Sipes responded. “I didn't know at the time, talk about naive, I didn't know contractors were not licensed in New York."
They're not.  But Westchester, Nassau, Rockland, Putnam, and Suffolk counties all require a license or registration, as well as New York City and Buffalo.  So while Sprague could do business without detection in the Rochester area, he likely would not have been able to get a contractor's license just 90 miles away in Buffalo.

Jim Kraus is on a mission.  The Geneseo retiree has waged a battle from his living room for more than two years, writing state legislators pleading for state contractor licensing.
"Basically my comments fell on deaf ears," said Kraus.
For Kraus, the fight is personal.  In the winter of 2015, he paid contractor Kurt Kline $140,000.  Kline left the house in shambles and never went back.  Kraus had no idea he had hired a contractor with two felony convictions and three personal bankruptcies.  
 "I believe that he would have been denied licensing in New York State.  He would never have been able to be a contractor here,” said Kraus. 
That's because many city and county licensing applications ask about felonies, judgements, even bankruptcies.  So why can't the state do the same? 
"It will drive up the cost," said Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle.
Morelle says legislators are concerned about expanding the size of an already expansive state government.  
"There's nothing free. If you're going to put in a series of regulations and the government has to monitor those regulations and make sure those regulations are being met, there's going to be a cost associated with that,” said Morelle.
And when those regulations cost the contractor, he ultimately passes on those costs to you.  Instead Morelle supports a less expensive option - a home contractor registry.
"I would certainly support some type of legislation that had some type of registration and some type of bond that you have to post to make sure you finished the work," said Morelle. 
 Kraus believes it's a start but not enough to protect consumers from crooks like Kurt Kline.
"If we had done a background check on him, he would never have stepped foot in this house, and so the licensing process would have done that for us," said Kraus.
It's important to note that both these consumers checked reviews and got references, but still were ripped off.  Professional contractor organizations like the Better Contractors Bureau strongly support contractor licensing to weed out criminal contractors.
As for Kurt Kline, he’s in prison serving three to six years for defrauding Kraus others in Livingston County. Al Sprague counter-sued Susan Sipes in small claims court.  He awaits their April court date as authorities investigate criminal charges against him.
The National Association of Home Builders has a list of licensing and registrations by state. It shows states have exercised a wide range of options to provide consumers some measure of protection.  


Deanna Dewberry

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