NEW ORLEANS -- For the last two years, a state licensing board has been cracking down on contractors who tried to take advantage of lucrative Katrina rebuilding grants with shell companies and shoddy work.
In June 2011, they came out with their biggest fines ever, more than $350,000 against Kris Clark for operating without a license on 17 houses in multiple parishes and funneling payments through several companies.
They also banned Clark from working as a contractor in the state, even refusing a settlement offer from Clark’s father because they didn’t want the younger Clark working for his dad in the same capacity. The board members called his conduct “egregious.”
So, why did we find Clark in the manager’s trailer at an active construction site? And why is he telling disgruntled homeowners and other contractors that he represents a company with more than a dozen unfinished, taxpayer-financed projects?
Seven months after Clark was banned, he allegedly signed a contract for his disbarred company, L.A.A.K.E. Quality Homes, to build a new house in Baton Rouge for Jill Tate.
Clark told us he had that job before he got fined by the licensing board and passed it on to another company. But Tate said she dealt with Clark the whole way as he transferred the contract to three different companies – from L.A.A.K.E. to Alliance Contractors to The Shoring Company of Louisiana.
The licensing board’s lead investigator, Carl Bourque, said he received a complaint from Alliance Contractors about Clark’s involvement with their contracts, but that he moved on before the board could look into it.
It would have been one thing if it had stopped there. But then we heard complaints about The Shoring Company of Louisiana, a local home elevation company that had failed to complete more than a dozen home-lifting and rental property construction jobs from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
And that’s when we tracked down Clark.
We found him last week at a major, mixed-use development in Gonzales called Edenborne. The 300-acre project’s main investor is the star wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts, John Ehret product Reggie Wayne. As we pulled into the entrance to the development, Kris Clark drove up and stepped out of his new white Cadillac.
We asked him what he was doing at an active job site, given that he’d been banned by the licensing board. He said he wasn’t running the job or even working there. He said he was just picking up some architectural drawings for his father, Bill Clark of Michigan.
Edenborne Development Group LLC is 60 percent owned by Wayne’s company, R.D. Wayne Development, and 40 percent by a trust Bill Clark set up for his children, including Kris Clark.
We had heard that Kris Clark had been showing up at Edenborne since the manager of Wayne’s company, another Michigander named Brian Rickel, died suddenly on Jan. 5.
And then we heard that Clark was trying to get involved in another one of Rickel’s companies – The Shoring Company of Louisiana.
In November, we did a story about Carrie Merrill, a New Orleans East homeowner who had signed a contract with the Shoring Company in 2011, paid them $80,000 from a state elevation grant and waited – for more than a year before Kris Clark showed up with Shoring Company crews.
The Shoring Company dug under Merrill’s house, preparing it for lifting. And again – nothing. We went to see Merrill again last week and found almost nothing more had been done – just some plywood boards placed over the tunnels and standing water below the home a foot and a half deep.
Merrill said Kris Clark came to her home in October while crews were working. We asked Clark about that project and he claimed to have never met Carrie Merrill and said he had nothing to do with her elevation job.
In fact, Clark denied having any involvement at all with the Shoring Company.
We uncovered several pieces of evidence that strongly suggest otherwise.
First, there are emails Clark sent on behalf of the Shoring Company four days after Rickel’s death to a company called Swepco. Swepco is one of about 15 construction firms that won contracts with the state to fix up duplexes and other small rental properties under another federally financed Katrina recovery program.
Swepco had subcontracted with the Shoring Company on six of the small rental repair jobs, but the Shoring Company failed to complete any of them while Rickel was alive. And yet, there was Clark, just after Rickel’s death, emailing Swepco asking for payments related to the work.
“If there is a payment due to The Shoring Company please let me know and I would be happy to come accept the check from you whenever you are available,” Clark wrote.
Clark also referred to “my company” in the emails. Still, when asked about the Shoring Company, he said he only wrote three emails to help a friend, Joel Mikazes of Michigan, a longtime friend of Rickel’s who was trying to deal with pending business issues for Rickel’s estate.
Mikazes worked for Rickel, both on the Edenborne project and the Shoring Company jobs, according to Mikazes’ lawyer, Patrick Fanning.
John Seago, the attorney for Edenborne and R.D. Wayne Development, said Kris Clark is not working for those companies, and yet the emails on behalf of the Shoring Company were sent from R.D. Wayne Development’s email address.
Seago actually represented Clark when he was hauled before the contractor licensing board in 2011, but now Clark says Seago did a poor job handling the case and blames him and the board for keeping him out of work.
Seago said Rickel let Clark use the firstname.lastname@example.org email account once last fall and nobody realized he was still using it to send messages to Swepco after Rickel’s death.
Seago said that Wayne’s new business manager, Ken Wilson, directed Clark and Mikazes to stop using the R.D. Wayne email at a meeting last month.
We also confronted Clark about photographs of him allegedly paying workers on a Shoring Company construction job in a tony Baton Rouge subdivision, the Myrtles.
He looked at the pictures and said he couldn’t remember what he was doing at the Myrtles job site on Jan. 25.
But we spoke to the man pictured with Clark – a concrete finisher named Calvin Griffin. He said Clark was paying him with a check from The Shoring Company of Louisiana. When Griffin tried to cash the check, he couldn’t because it was signed by Rickel, who had been dead at that point for three weeks.
Michael Gurtler, the surviving owner of the Shoring Company, said he doesn’t even know who Kris Clark is.
“He has a history of taking over the companies he gets into,” said Bourque, the licensing board investigator.
“To actually be out here paying he has to be on the company's payroll. He can't be a 1099 neither. He's got to be on the payroll, Social Security taxes and all that, if he claims he's working for somebody.”
But if he’s doing all these things while claiming he is not working for the Shoring Company?
“That's why we're going to have to start investigating everything,” Bourque said.