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Quake Area Sweep Cites 9 Unlicensed Contractors : Recovery: Investigators fan out for the day, mostly in Sherman Oaks, looking for rubble or other signs that building is going on. At one stop workers are unwilling to show identification and police are called.

August 25, 1994|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The workers repairing a quake-damaged Woodland Hills house stood next to a concrete-filled wheelbarrow, shovels and trowels in hand, and stared uncomprehendingly at the state official.

"It appears you have committed a crime," the official said to the contractor who employed the men.

"What do you mean, a crime?" the contractor asked.

"It's a felony to do what you're doing," said Ken Johnson, a deputy registrar with the Contractors State License Board. Jonson explained that the law requires a contractor's license as well as workers' compensation insurance for employees, which the contractor did not have.

"Welcome to the world of contracting," Johnson said.

Johnson was part of a multi-agency task force conducting a sweep Wednesday through quake-damaged neighborhoods, mostly in Sherman Oaks, searching for unlicensed contractors and licensed ones in violation of the contracting laws.

Nine people were cited for functioning as contractors without a license, which carries a fine of $1,500 to $2,000, and 15 licensed contractors were cited for violations ranging from lack of workers' compensation insurance to having an expired license, which carry a fine of $500 to $4,500.

Investigators from the Employment Development Department and the state Labor Commission also were part of the task force conducting the sweep. The EDD's goal is to find unregistered employers who are paying workers in cash--and not paying taxes, officials said. And the Labor Commission is looking for labor law violators.

After a briefing in a parking lot, 12 investigators fanned out into Sherman Oaks, keeping contact on cellular phones.

Johnson said he sees each house he passes with a pile of rubble or bricks in front--a sign of repair work--as a potential crime scene.

In all, the six investigators with the contractors board made 68 stops during the sweep. In most interviews, contractors willingly presented their licenses and cooperated. But at the house in Woodland Hills, Johnson was far from welcome. Battling language barriers--the workers spoke Spanish and Tongan--Johnson tried to explain his mission.

Workers became belligerent and refused to show him identification.

Caught in the middle was homeowner Charles Gomes. Before signing a contract, Gomes had called the automated contractors board telephone line to determine if the contractor's license number on the contract was valid. It was, but it turned out not belong to the man who signed the contract, Johnson said. And the recording does not tell callers if the contractor has workers' compensation coverage.

Los Angeles police who showed up in response to a call for help by Johnson calmed the angry workers and assisted Johnson in getting the workers' names and in taking photographs of them for contractors board records.

Johnson had issued a citation to one of the workers at Gomes' house last week for unlicensed contracting. But by that point workers had torn off the roof of the home and Gomes felt he had no choice but to continue with the same workers.

"I got a bare roof and two block walls torn down," a frustrated Gomes said. "I'm not going to stop the job. If it rains on me, I'm dead."

Authorities said violations of the law are the contractor's problem, not an unwitting homeowner's.

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