Mon, Jul 15, 2024



FloridaCommerce says it’s referred a potential fraud case to the State Attorney’s office after work was marked complete when the agency says it was not.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Shoddy work, years of delays and soaring costs. These are just some of the complaints about the Rebuild Florida program that we’ve been investigating for months with our partners at 10 Tampa Bay

“All of my doors have no threshold boards. Air just goes right through it,” Fred Brooks said as he led us through his home. “All my doors are hung crooked.”

It’s been three and a half years since Brooks signed an agreement with the DEO, now known as FloridaCommerce, to receive a new house through the Rebuild Florida program to replace his home damaged by Hurricane Irma.

“They put the new septic tank right here where you see this divot. It’s collapsed,” Brooks said. “You see the red light, that’s the alarm on the septic tank saying the pump is not working.”

Brooks says he can’t live in his new house because the septic tank collapsed after it was installed.  And that’s not his only complaint. 

“If you look here at the plan, it says right here, it’s got a top cap. It’s got a bottom cap,” Brooks explained talking about the columns on the front of his house. “This is what the state paid for. This is what I was awarded. That’s not what we’re getting. That’s not what the state’s getting.”

Inside, his frustration continues.

“They gave me a broken window, cracked window right there,” Brooks said.

He showed us a heated text exchange with a Rebuild Florida inspector last November, the last time he says anyone with the program visited his home. The state also provided us with a string of texts messages he sent that they say raises concerns for workers safety.

“In the case of Mr. Brooks, that is a challenging one. He has, and this is not easy to talk about, he has actually threatened to kill the contractors multiple times,” FloridaCommerce Secretary Alex Kelly said.

Brooks, who is not facing any charges, disputes that and says he just wanted the contractors exposed. So now his house, a project that cost $434,000 according to a public document, sits empty.

“It was supposed to take a year, year and a half. It’s been three years plus it’ll be four years, next December. And I had to fight with them all the way,” Brooks said.

Our months long statewide investigation found dozens of homeowners who are still waiting for Rebuild to finish their projects. 

The state awarded IEM, a disaster recovery business, a $252 million dollar contract to administer the program. IEM says it’s made extraordinary progress in just five years against incredible odds. The company says more than 95% of the roughly 4,000 homes are complete despite global supply chain disruptions, additional storms, labor shortages and pandemic shutdowns.

“Together with FloridaCommerce, IEM is deeply proud and privileged to serve the residents and families of Florida in rebuilding,” IEM said in a statement to First Coast News. “With our partners at FloridaCommerce, IEM is working hard to complete the small number of remaining repair projects, and continues to vigorously address any remaining complaints or issues.”

The company says its call center and case management team are for homeowners to contact when issues arise. 

But homeowners we spoke with say the lack of communication is troubling, and Secretary Kelly has heard the same thing.

“We’ve consistently heard from these homeowners consistently heard that no one at IEM, no one at the subcontractor will call them back. No one will just answer the question and deal with the problem. 

IEM declined our multiple requests for an interview but sent a video of the company’s CEO who says they are dedicated to serving the people of Florida and the remaining homes should be finished by the end of the contract in July.

Many of those still waiting feel neglected.

“When that contractor throws their hands up and just abdicates that responsibility to somebody else, of course, in each one of those cases we step in,” Kelly said.

After we gave the state about two dozen names of homeowners we spoke with who needed help, FloridaCommerce sent employees to their homes to see their complaints firsthand. 

“Based on our review of going and actually talking with homeowners and looking at what they identified as concerns, I think probably about three quarters of those 36 that we’re talking about, whether it was IEM or whether it was their subcontractors, I think they failed in one way or another,” Kelly said. “And there’s a portion of those, I think about 16 or so, that they marked as complete and they were not complete, which is falsifying information.” 

Kelly credits homeowners for speaking out. This month he says his office referred its first case of suspected fraud to the State Attorney’s Office for investigation.

“IEM signed off on the completeness of work for payment. And we had clear evidence, photographic evidence, that that was a lie. So, we referred that case to the State Attorney in Fort Myers,” Kelly said.
  
IEM says it has seen no evidence of fraud and the case in question was “an excusable human error by the inspector.” The company says it refunded the $50,000 in question until the matter is further reviewed by Commerce.

Both IEM and the state say they are committed to getting those in the Rebuild Florida program back into their homes. Kelly says work on the Hurricane Irma projects will be finished in July.

“The contract for the contractors ends then, so they must finish it in July. That’s non-moveable for us,” Kelly said. “There are a total of about  300 homeowners that have work that is ongoing, open construction projects, so we owe it to them to finish the work and get it done.”

IEM says it has completed 3,656 homes, with an additional 90 that are nearing completion, leaving 184 homes that are remaining.

In April, the state launched its Rebuild Florida Housing Repair and Replacement Program for Hurricane Ian. Kelly says they’re learned lessons along the way and are now focused on rebuilds rather than repairs which can be more complicated.  

If you have an experience with Rebuild Florida you want to share with us, you can email hcrawford2@firstcoastnews.com.



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johndweiner@gmail.com

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