Protocol broke down a few times at an emotional Charlotte County Construction Licensing Board hearing Thursday night as angry homeowners vented about treatment by HD Custom Homes.
The board heard testimony about the work of a builder whose business partner, real estate agent Stephen Dukes, seemed to be the real focus of anger.
At the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to block Matthew Harden, co-owner of HD Custom Homes, from pulling permits in Charlotte County. Harden was absent from the meeting. At least 100 aspiring homeowners and others attended the hearing, with most stating their hope that Harden and Dukes be prosecuted as criminals.
“They weren’t builders that went awry, they were criminals that took up building to bilk people out of a lot of money,” said Michael Hains, whose South Gulf Cove home took 1 1/2 years to reach an incomplete state. Hains called himself among the lucky to be living in his home, although he still faces enormous expenses, such as an $18,000 lien filed by a pool company. This after he paid Harden and Dukes $50,000 for the pool.
The board’s ruling does not affect Harden’s state license, and it does not affect Dukes at all. In fact, homeowners testified that the two men already have a new company.
“They have to be stopped,” said homeowner Eric Richey, who spotted the new company, Fantastic Four Holdings LLC.
Public records confirm the Nov. 16 reformation of Fantastic Four at 7630 Sawyer Circle in Port Charlotte. (Originally, the company had two more members, Selena Harden and Maria Dukes.) The company is reformed just as Harden wrote to the board that he was voluntarily giving up his local and state construction license.
“Mr. Harden states he failed his customers, and he wishes to permanently give up his license,” Erin Mullen-Travis, the county’s contractor manager, told the board, adding that Harden has moved to Guntersville, Alabama.
Mullen-Travis said she found liens totaling $1,238,121 against the homes built by HD Custom Homes with much more to come. This is money that the property owners are now being asked to pay subcontractors. Some homeowners are on the hook for as much as $200,000, Mullen-Travis said.
Mullen-Travis narrated a wide range of board charges against Harden ranging from incompetency, misconduct, dereliction of duty and unlawful behavior. Specifically, the county accused Harden of bouncing a check to the county, taking money from homeowners and failing to apply for permits in time or receiving permits and failing to start work on a project.
On the criminal side, over which the board has no jurisdiction, Mullen-Travis inquired none-the-less.
“I asked Mr. Harden if he was co-mingling funds, and he said he was unsure,” Mullen-Travis said. Harden told her Dukes handled the finances.
Given the limited effect of the board’s actions, the board asked Mullen-Travis to list the actions the property owners should next pursue. To pursue criminal action, she advised them to file reports with the county sheriff, and that the licensing board’s information would bolster that. She also advised them to file complaints with the state attorney general and with state licensing boards.
Most, if not all the people who testified, said they were living out of state during the construction of their homes. They spoke of how difficult it was to be unable to visit the work site for months, and of how they did not know how the rules work in Florida.
As for restitution, Mullen-Travis said the state has a small fund for people who lose money to construction contractors, but it is doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, she said.
Many households said they had hired lawyers, but no one reported receiving their money back. One woman, Tammy Sillitoe, said Dukes did give her back two subsequent checks, after they had lost $40,800. He had kept the subsequent checks for two years, she told the Sun.
The quasi-judicial protocol broke down at one point with board member John Damon accusing Harden and Dukes’ former construction superintendent Mark Crider of failing to take action.
“You had to know about this,” said Damon to Crider, who sat in the audience. “This could have been nipped along time ago. ... It could have been prevented.”
Crider defended himself.
“I did my job,” he said angrily. “You know who didn’t do their job? The people writing those checks.”
Mullen-Travis provided a possible explanation for why some banks continue to issue payments. While contractors were demanding payment, Harden had signed legal affidavits assuring that they had been paid, Mullen-Travis told the board. These affidavits were used to persuade banks to release more construction loan money, she said.
Some homeowners said they were saved when their banks refused to pay.
Board members appeared incredulous that county staff did not pick up on the problem sooner.
Throughout the two years of the company’s operation, Mullen-Travis said, “We didn’t hear from suppliers. We didn’t hear from contractors, nobody, until the last possible minute.”
Then, Lee and Tammy Sillitoe said they complained in August. Mullen-Travis countered that staff mediated an agreement at that time. The Sillitoes said they never attended that meeting.
But the blame kept coming back to the face of the company, Dukes. Both Tammy Sillitoe and Crider described Dukes as a man who liked to use religion to bond with his customers.
“I remember Stephen one time said, ‘You want to get in good with your homeowners, go find out where they go to church,’” Crider recalled. “We always had a little church prayer before our meetings. The hypocrisy of that was terrible.”
In a final twist, the name of Glenn Siegel came up frequently as Harden and Duke’s lawyer who sent out countless letters to stunned customers. The letters demanded tens of thousands of dollars for construction that was often years behind schedule and of such poor quality it failed inspections. These letters came as the property owners were wondering what had happened to the money they had already given Harden and Dukes.
The twist is that Siegel, who attended the hearing, is also the longstanding legal counsel for the board. Before the hearing, he recused himself, and left before the hearing ended. He did not speak, but paced in the back of the hearing room.
Several board members apologized to the property owners after their testimony.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said member Stephen Gardiner. “I wish we could do more. It’s going to be a long battle for all of you. I hope you survive it. I hope you get back as much as is possible. We’re going to do the most we can do, and try to give you some relief, if possible.”
After the hearing, the atmosphere was remarkably upbeat for a roomful of people who believe they have been swindled — some of their life savings.
While testifying, Tammy Sillitoe started to break down as she described how her husband Lee, a retired Marine, lost three years of his military pension, $40,800, to end up two years later with nothing. They are still in Virginia.
Asked by the Sun if they still want to move to Port Charlotte, Tammy Sillitoe said yes.
“Out of everything bad that has happened, I’ve met so many people,” she said, that she still wants to be part of this community.