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Orlando Sentinel: Dreams die – Fraud denied

Date: Sunday, February 10, 2008
Edition: FINAL
Source: Kumari Kelly, Sentinel Staff Writer

Unbuilt homes, lost dreams
Buyers trying to get deposit money back say law is no protection

KISSIMMEE — A real-estate developer who accepted $24 million in deposits
for homes that have not been built also owned a previous company accused
of leaving many home buyers stranded.
And Florida’s system for protecting consumers had no rules to prevent the
second company from taking more deposits, despite the first company’s
failure to complete homes.
Both Platinum Properties of Central Florida and Hearthstone Homes Inc.
were operated by David N. Weiker Sr., 56, of Casselberry, who was arrested
Feb. 1 on 32 felony counts of communication fraud and one count of
organized fraud. Platinum Properties’ co-owner, Lawrence Maloney, 66, was
also arrested on one count of fraud.
None of the charges were related to the Hearthstone business. But buyers
at both sites were left wondering why state laws didn’t protect them.
About a dozen customers are suing Platinum to get their money back.
Weiker, however, says he did nothing wrong but make some bad business
decisions.
“No one has lost any money as of this time,” he said Tuesday via e-mail,
calling the charges “bogus.” Hearthstone’s problems centered on illness,
not criminal intent, he said.
“Platinum is in a Chapter 11 [reorganization] and has put forth plans to
remedy for the contract holders. . . . When the facts are finally out and
backed with documentation of truth, there is going to be a lot of
embarrassment to go around.”
State rules don’t require developers such as Weiker — often the person
making promises to clients — to put their names on licensing documents.
Weiker is a real estate agent, not a home builder. Hearthstone’s vice
president and builder was on the contracting license and was fined and
disciplined after a state investigation into Hearthstone.
The agency in charge of licenses for contractors and real estate agents
and brokers — the Department of Business and Professional Regulation —
says it checks the background of licensees. If they find wrongdoing later,
repercussions can range from probation and fines to revoking licenses to
forwarding cases to prosecutors.
“If you are a licensee, DBPR will take action against you,” agency
spokesman Joe Friedman said.
Florida law also allows builders to spend deposit money on other expenses
to get their projects under way, provided that practice is disclosed to
buyers ahead of time. Platinum contracts included that disclosure.
“I think a lot of people are really disillusioned with the American legal
system,” said Michael Walsh, of Newbridge, Ireland, who paid a deposit to
Platinum but has never seen his home built. Walsh was shocked to find out
that it wasn’t the first time one of Weiker’s companies left buyers in the
lurch.
“It’s like exploiting all the loopholes in laws over there.”
Heidi and Shane Richards of Kissimmee paid a $32,308 down payment to
Hearthstone Homes in December 2000 and later another $19,093 toward their
home. They were surprised when work stopped in November 2001 with little
more than a slab and footers poured and a partial block wall erected —
about $16,000 of work, other contractors later estimated. “They kept
making promises they were going to do something, but never would,” said
Shane Richards, who owns an interior design firm in Kissimmee.
In 2003, the Richardses hired another contractor. They wound up borrowing
$34,000 from Heidi’s parents to finish the $161,000 house.
Hearthstone Homes was a partnership between Weiker and contractor Robert
Dale Owen of Sanford. In August, Weiker admitted they had problems
finishing the Richardses’ house, blaming illness that struck Owen. When
Hearthstone came back to finish the job, the couple fired them, Weiker
said.
Owen wouldn’t comment.
Weiker blamed the delays at Platinum on the discovery of protected gopher
tortoises and Internet attacks on him, which have scared off lenders, he
said.
Hat Lau, who signed a Platinum contract for a home in Winslow Estates in
2005 and paid a $35,000 deposit, says Florida law should have done more to
protect him.
“I am from California, where deposits are held by a third-party escrow
company with insurance,” Lau said. “I thought Florida would be similar.
Little did I know that Florida allows the seller to hold the escrow
deposit without accountability, without oversight and without insurance.”
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