Last night, we told you about Kris Clark, a banned contractor who allegedly tried to take control over a construction and home-elevation company when its owner died suddenly last month.
But the company, The Shoring Company of Louisiana, and its late owner, Brian Rickel, were poster children for the problems with two state Katrina-recovery programs long before Clark showed up.
Rickel, who is from Michigan, got a foothold in Louisiana making absorbent boom for BP to clean up the 2010 oil spill. After making big money as a supplier, he set up the Shoring Company to take advantage of the state’s lucrative home elevation grant program.
The problems with that $750 million home elevation program have been well-documented.
My investigations two years ago turned up shoddy work; contractors making such huge profits that they were willing to pay $10,000 a name for leaked government lists of grant-qualified homeowners; and homes elevated at $100,000 a pop, but then left abandoned.
State investigators cracked down when they found dozens of outsiders descending on Louisiana for the work without proper licenses. Some of them were using eligible contractors’ licenses and collecting money on projects the license-holders knew nothing about.
When Rickel formed the Shoring Company in 2011 he gave engineering expert Michael Gurtler of Gurtler Brothers a 4-percent share in the elevation firm.
But after taking on nine grant-financed jobs, Rickel abandoned the work. His project manager, a friend from Michigan named Joel Mikazes, told us through his attorney that the company couldn’t finish the work because of financial problems.
“Brian directed all the activity on these jobs,” Mikazes’ attorney Patrick Fanning said. “Brian would have the Shoring Company do some work and then he’d pull the people off the jobs. Typically Brian would complain that he expended more funds than the program advanced to them.”
Given that the program advanced contractors $80,000 on a $100,000 job, insiders told Eyewitness News that the only way Rickel could have had such cash-flow problems was if he was redirecting federal grant money to other, ineligible projects.
And the victims were the homeowners. Nine of them in the New Orleans area are still waiting on the Shoring Company to finish the work. Two of them haven’t even gotten their homes lifted yet, even though the company hasn’t requested a grant payment in nearly a year.
Carrie Merrill owns one of the two homes still waiting to be lifted. She said the company dug tunnels under her house in October and have done little since. We featured her in a story in November and the company responded by simply placing plywood over the open holes.
When Rickel decided to drop the elevation grant jobs, he moved the Shoring Company on to another taxpayer-financed program, the $800 million Small Rental Repair Program. That’s a state-managed construction program for rebuilding Katrina-damaged duplexes and other small rental units for mom and pop landlords.
The Shoring Company served as a subcontractor on six jobs for the contractor selected by the state, SWEPCO.
“I've taken all these jobs away from them because they were not completing them right,” SWEPCO owner Swepson “Swep” Chaney said.
It turns out that the Shoring Company’s license-holder, Gurtler, never knew about the SWEPCO jobs. He also said he knew nothing about a mansion the company is building in the Myrtles subdivision of Baton Rouge or another Baton Rouge house for which it shortly held the contract.
Gurtler said he learned about these jobs when we told them about them. He also learned from us that Kris Clark, whose father was a partner with Rickel in a separate company, had sent SWEPCO emails asking for payments for the Shoring Company and had appeared at the Myrtles construction site allegedly with Shoring Company checks in hand.
All of that came to light after Rickel died Jan. 5. Gurtler now finds himself in a battle with Rickel’s widow for control over the Shoring Company and desperately trying to make the situation right for bewildered homeowners like Carrie Merrill.
Gurtler said he’s negotiating with two other shoring firms to see if they can take over the jobs in which the homes are yet to be elevated.
The Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors said it’s the qualifying party’s responsibility to know what jobs the company is performing, even if, like Gurtler, he is not involved in the daily operations.
Gurtler has recently installed Rick Mithun as the manager of the Shoring Company to replace Rickel and said that Mithun had been involved with the company since the beginning and will be able to make sure the jobs are done right. But when we asked Gurtler if he knew that Mithun is a convicted felon who bribed an assistant Jefferson Parish district attorney in 1998, Gurtler said he did not.
We reached out to Mithun by phone and email and did not hear back from him. I first confronted Gurtler about the Shoring Company in late 2011 because he was appearing often on television as an elevation expert, criticizing other elevation firms. He said that after that, he asked Rickel to remove him as an owner and the qualifying party for the company, but Rickel never did.
At the same time, Gurtler could have unilaterally contacted the licensing board to remove himself as the Shoring Company’s qualifying party at any time.
State spokeswoman Christina Stephens said the state had offered all nine homeowners affected by the Shoring Company’s failures a chance to select a new contractor.
“Of the nine homeowners, only one has expressed a willingness to change contractors, and that homeowner is being assisted with moving to a new contractor,” she said. “Seven of the nine jobs are actually more than 90 percent complete, with the final work expected to be complete in the coming weeks.
“We understand that there is significant internal debate in the company as to who is in charge after the death of one of its owners last month,” Stephens added. “This issue is being worked out in the courts. We’re pushing to get these final homeowners completed regardless, because they deserve to have their homes complete. We have been promised by legal counsel for the company that they will be coming up with a plan for how the work will actually be completed.”