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Unsafe Zone

A Fallen Scaffold in Reservoir Hill Reveals that Some General Contractors Working on City Buildings May be Operating Without Insurance

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 9/8/2004

Brigitte Baker says she didn’t know what hit her as she drove home from work on the afternoon of June 25. “I wasn’t bleeding or anything, [but] I was basically in shock,” the 40-year-old Reservoir Hill resident says. “I saw in my rearview mirror people jumping out of their cars. I saw glass all over me. The right eye, I had glass in it.”

Baker’s car had been struck not by a reckless driver, but by a construction contractor. A three-story tall scaffold at 1100 Whitelock St. had toppled, its steel tubing crumpling the hood of Baker’s 2003 Toyota Corolla. The impact shattered the windshield and slammed her into her door.

Other drivers helped Baker from her car, she says, after which she was taken by ambulance to Maryland General Hospital. She was released that same day, but bruises on her shoulder and arm kept her from work for two months, Baker says. Her car suffered $6,800 of damage.

The 1100 Whitelock St. project is a historic renovation that will transform the building into nine luxury apartments. Joshua Siegel, who is developing the family-owned building with his father, Richard, says the work will cost upwards of $800,000 (“Mr. Fix It,” Aug. 18). Normally after an accident, the contractor’s liability insurance would cover the damages. But Baker’s lawyer, Seymour Goldstein, says neither the scaffolding contractor nor the general contractor carried liability insurance. Goldstein says he will try to negotiate a settlement from the property owner. “It looks like he better have insurance or he’s going to be liable,” he says.

Calvin Coblentz, executive director of the Associated General Contractors’ Maryland chapter agrees. “For someone to be working on a project of that size without insurance is just unbelievable,” says Coblentz, whose organization lobbies the state legislature on behalf of its contractor members. “The owner could end up being liable.”

The Siegels and their lawyer, John Denick, declined comment on the scaffold accident; on Sept. 2 Denick would neither confirm nor deny whether the Siegels are themselves insured for the liability.

The scaffolding collapse and its aftermath have opened a window into what Reservoir Hill residents say is a growing problem in the area: the use of unlicensed and unregistered contractors to perform renovations. The Siegels’ project at 1100 Whitelock, for which they have applied for several hundred thousand dollars of city, state, and federal historic-rehabilitation tax credits, is one of the larger in the neighborhood. But by no means is it the only construction rehab that has seen trouble with unlicensed work, says John Ruffin, executive director of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council.

“As the level of work in the community has picked up we’re hearing rumblings [about substandard] work by some contractors,” Ruffin says. “One of the biggest issues is folks trying to cut costs by not going through permitting and hiring people off the street at a reduced rate.”

Several neighbors contend that the general contractor on Siegel’s Whitelock project, A.A.D. Developers, hired men off the street and paid most of them no more than $50 per day.

“Early in the morning you get those cats on the fringes of society, ex-junkies, they line up at the front of the building,” says Everett Parks, a neighborhood resident who called police last month when men, who he thinks were workers hired by general contractors, returned one night to steal dry wall from the building site.

“My guys don’t steal,” Joshua Siegel insisted last month when told of Parks’ claim, a few weeks after the scaffold collapse. “My guys are great. We’re using mostly all minority-owned contractors” who provide jobs to neighborhood residents.

The building permit for the project lists the general contractor as “A.A.D. Developers act as Elks Venture.” A man who answered at the phone number listed on the permit application said he operates A.A.D. and has worked the 1100 Whitelock job but is unrelated to Elks. “I don’t know who wrote that ‘Elks Venture,’” he said.

Asked about the scaffold accident, the man, who gave his name as Andrew Bairsow, said that “all of us have insurance, that’s the bottom line.” He then said that “the real owners don’t want the story to come out,” and he referred questions to a criminal-defense lawyer, Michael Kaminkow, who did not return a phone message before deadline.

The state Department of Assessments and Taxation lists the resident agent of A.A.D. Enterprise Inc. as Andrew Dairson of Hanover. Neither the company nor its proprietor—under either name— is listed in the contractor database maintained by the state. The state contractor license number on the building permit belongs to Beverly Helmick, who is listed as the resident agent of Elk Venture. A phone message left at her business address was not returned before deadline.

Goldstein says that after the accident the operator of the scaffolding company, J&J Contractors, a subcontractor to A.A.D., proffered a Maryland Home Improvement license number belonging to an unrelated firm in Prince George’s County. The owner of that firm, Goldstein says, “hit the roof” when he learned that his state license had been used that way. The operator of J&J Contractors could not be reached for comment.

“Everybody gave us phony insurance information,” says Goldstein, who chairs the Maryland Home Improvement Commission, the state board that oversees home-improvement contractors. He says shady home-improvement contractors sometimes use other peoples’ state licenses to solicit jobs; homeowners who are ripped off can use the commission to get refunds from the contractor or, in some cases, from a guaranty fund that licensed contractors pay into to cover damages. State law requires all subcontractors working for a home-improvement contractor to be licensed as well, Goldstein says, “but on the commercial side they don’t.”

That means contractors who work on commercial jobs like the Siegels’—which are often far larger and more expensive than home improvements—are regulated more loosely than the home-improvement contractors. “The control is not there,” Goldstein says.

Usually this is not a problem, says Robert Lawson, commissioner of labor and industry for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation. “Typically that portion of the construction business tends to have somebody pretty reputable, at least on the forefront, advising the owner,” Lawson says. “This assumes you have a reputable owner.”

Lawson, who oversees worker-safety and wage-and-hour regulations in the state, says a million-dollar rehab typically starts with an architectural/engineering firm, which draws up the plans and then helps the owner find a contractor. The standard contracts stipulate that the general contractor will carry insurance or a bond to protect the owner, follow all laws regarding occupational safety and health, obey wage and hour laws, and make sure the subcontractors do the same.

“The other aspect is that many general contractors will insist that their subs provide some documentation on their accident incident rates,” Lawson says. “So a general contractor has tools at their beck and call to look at whether they have a reputable [sub]contractor or not. Because if they’re not, they can throw a real monkeywrench into their construction schedule.”

Considering the aftermath of the scaffold accident on Whitelock Street, “to me the owner certainly didn’t exercise due diligence as he issued contracts,” Lawson says, adding that neighbors who hear of dangerous working conditions or low-paid day labor should report it. “From our perspective, either wage protection or safety and health, if the public observes something like this, we would hope they would call us. We will investigate.”

Few others, apparently, will. Although the Siegels have applied for historic tax breaks for 1100 Whitelock that could total more than half of the stated cost of construction, Dan Sams, the preservation officer who oversees the historic tax breaks project at Maryland Historical Trust, says he inspects the plans and building only to confirm that historically correct work is done.

“We do not regulate anybody that anybody hires,” he says. “We do not check building permits. That’s not part of the program.”

Dorreya Elmenshawy, Baltimore City’s director of permits and code enforcement, signed off on Siegel’s permit. She says the city receives far too many permit applications to check every applicant’s license.

“When the applicants come to fill out applications there is a language that acts as affidavit, which they sign,” she says. “Once they sign we assume everything on the application is true.”

If a valid license holder later writes the city to complain that a contractor is misusing the license number, the city can rescind the building permit and forward the information to state licensing authorities, Elmenshawy says.

Ruffin says the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council is considering creating a “community certification process” for contractors who meet minimum standards and has begun assembling a list of reputable contractors for use by area property owners.

Baker says she is “still kind of scared to drive,” but she returned to her job at the Annie E. Casey Foundation last week.

“She was lucky when the scaffold came down—she could have been killed,” says Baker’s friend Frances Meekins. “She had glass in her eye they had to take tape to pull the glass out of her skin.”

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