Unlicensed contractor still operating
I have just read your column regarding a contractor named Tevita (also known as Terita, aka David) Ungounga. Unfortunately, I read it only after having contracted with him to build a rock wall on my property. Much to my dismay, I now find out that, to date, this man has as many as 10 complaints against him, dating back to 1998, and fines totaling in excess of $70,000, as well as at least one civil judgment against him for $7,500. Moreover, there are currently pending investigations from 2003 and 2004. Aside from feeling totally stupid for not having checked him out beforehand (we relied on the word of someone else as to his credibility), I am also dumbfounded as to why he is still walking the streets and being allowed to operate. If he is among the most-wanted offenders of this type in the state, then why hasn't he been arrested? Filing complaints obviously does nothing to abate his activity. And since he continues to operate, notwithstanding having injunctions against him, what's the point? When I called the consumer complaint number and spoke to an investigator, all she could suggest was to file a civil suit to recover our money -- like that's going to do anything! That you have an agency out there that has absolutely no enforcement power is a waste, and I find this just disgusting that the state is aware of this guy and has done nothing about it. Aside from filing a complaint, do you have any suggestions?
Answer: We, too, are amazed to hear Ungounga apparently is still operating, this despite the fact that he was sentenced to jail last year -- on tax charges relating to contracting work -- and is paying restitution to former victims.
You should file a complaint with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs' Regulated Industries Complaints Office. If you feel that's a waste of time, you can file one with the Honolulu Police Department.
On Wednesday, after responding to our questions about your complaint, RICO complaints officer Jo Ann Uchida told us two more written complaints about Ungounga "just came in."
RICO is "able to successfully address the majority of unlicensed activity cases through citations and civil lawsuits," she said. However, for Ungounga, "Your reader's experience suggests that even (criminal prosecution) has not completely stopped the unlicensed conduct," she said.
When we first heard about Ungounga (Kokua Line, Feb. 28, 2002), he already was on RICO's list of the state's top 10 unlicensed contractors.
But he was able to -- and obviously continues to -- dupe homeowners because he is "just very, very good at what he does," Uchida said back then. "He is very convincing, and he manages to get quite a large sum of money from individual consumers."
In a follow-up column that year (Kokua Line, March 13, 2002), Uchida said RICO had been working with law enforcement authorities to try to shut Ungounga down.
In answer to your complaint, Uchida said RICO continues to work "with various criminal law enforcement agencies to criminally prosecute cases involving unlicensed activity. Mr. Ungounga is among those who have been criminally prosecuted."
Asked for a rundown on the actions taken against Ungounga, Uchida said RICO issued citations against Ungounga in 1998, 1999 and 2000, "based on information that he was engaging in contracting activity without a license."
She said the administrative citations were upheld in Circuit Court, with subsequent civil penalties imposed and "injunctive language prohibiting further unlicensed contracting activity."
"In 2003, based on new complaints, RICO filed a civil lawsuit against Ungounga, again based on alleged unlicensed contracting activity," Uchida said. "This lawsuit resulted in a judgment against Ungounga totaling $65,000."
That year, he also was indicted by an Oahu grand jury for allegedly doing and being paid for contracting work, but failing to pay general excise taxes from 2000 to 2002, she said. That case was handled by the state attorney general.
A check of the state Judiciary's Web site indicates that "in 2005, Ungounga was sentenced to one year of probation, ordered to serve 60 days in jail, and ordered to pay $40,896 in restitution and fines," Uchida said.
She said he did spend time in jail and that "they've been collecting the restitution payment from him, as recently as last month. So that's been successful."
RICO now is working to verify allegations in the new complaints.
"Although people get frustrated -- I'm certainly frustrated, as well -- they need to continue to make complaints to us" so authorities can follow up, Uchida said.
The "new wrinkle" in Ungounga's alleged modus operandi is that "he may be using the names of licensees," she said. This also needs to be verified, but apparently, he indicated in at least one case he was an employee of a licensed contractor.
So the homeowner did do the right thing by checking on the license, saw there was "a good complaint history," and hired him.
Although Ungounga asked for cash payments, the homeowner did write a check and got suspicious after he asked that it be made out to him, Uchida said.
She warns people: "He's really a smooth talker. He successfully managed to get people to part with thousands of dollars, and not unsophisticated people ... professional people."
He's been working the Kapolei/Makakilo area, generally newer subdivisions, where people may have just moved in, Uchida said. In the recent complaint, he was doing excavation work, but "based on prior cases, he can do any kind of work -- rock walls or excavation."
Yours is a lesson Uchida hopes other homeowners will learn, because "as long as there are customers who readily hire unlicensed builders, there will be a market for this type of activity," she said. "While we have laws in place to protect consumers from this type of unlicensed activity, we are urging consumers to take the necessary steps to protect themselves by doing their homework."
Just spending a little time to do some research on the Internet or making a phone call to RICO's Consumer Resource Center (587-3222 or, toll-free for neighbor islanders, 1-800-394-1902) could've saved you a big headache, she said.
Just last summer, RICO ran a public service campaign (Kokua Line, July 11, 2006) warning people to make sure to hire a licensed contractor before giving any money. It also set up a Web site, licensedcontractor.hawaii.gov, which provides detailed information about the importance of hiring a licensed contractor, and tips on how to go about selecting and hiring a contractor, Uchida said.
The first advice is to check the license and complaints history of any company.
This doesn't work if the unlicensed contractor, as Ungounga allegedly is now doing, is using the name of a licensed contractor.
However, Uchida said you can still protect yourself by paying as you go, not upfront.
"If you're going to make a payment, try to make it in check form and make it in the name of licensee rather than to 'whomever' or to 'cash,'" she said. Try to build in as many safeguards as you can and never give cash.
Got a question or complaint?
Call 529-4773, fax 529-4750, or write to Kokua Line, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210, Honolulu 96813. As many as possible will be answered. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
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