News


Law Should Put Hammer Down On Fraudulent Contractors

TUESDAY, MARCH 21, 1995

Last summer, Donald Alan Stewart claimed someone stole $31,000 cash out of his pickup truck.

The other day, the 31-year-old Spokane contractor confirmed in court what the cops and those he conned knew all along:

That Donald Alan Stewart is a thief and a liar.

Stewart pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree theft. Sentencing is set for early April, about the same time he faces the music in a Davenport courtroom on an alleged Lincoln County swindle.

With any luck this skunk will make an appearance in an Idaho courtroom, too.

Victims believe Stewart may have made off with more than $50,000 in down payments throughout the area. The money was for building projects he never began or never finished.

Stewart’s guilty pleas, however, are a hollow victory for anyone with a passion for justice.

Despite the substantial money involved, this felon will serve minimal jail time, thanks to Washington’s toothless standardized sentencing law. A first offender, Stewart will probably get a piddly 60 days for the above two counts.

Restitution? Those he fleeced will be better off trying to hit the lottery.

Stewart owes $25,000 in back child support. The cars parked where he lives are registered in other names. Nobody knows for sure where all of those down payments went.

“That’s the frustrating thing about fraud,” says Spokane County Sheriff’s Detective Gary Smith. “You can go out and hold up somebody for 50 bucks and be looking at five to 10 years. Or do what this guy did and get zero to 30 days for each count.”

“It’s been a sad scenario,” agrees Tom Brownlee, a Spokane man who gave Stewart a check for $8,985.56 in July as a down payment on a new garage. “It’s real frustrating to lose this kind of money.”

This case is fraught with frustrations, not the least of which is how easy Washington legislators have made it to become a licensed general contractor.

You don’t have to own a hammer or know how to pound nails. Budding builders aren’t tested for competency.

All you need for a license is a measly $6,000 bond, which can be bought from a bonding agent for less than 10 percent.

“I’d like to see a minimum of $10,000 and it should be a lot greater than that,” says Don Anderson, a compliance specialist with the state Department of Licensing.

To protect themselves, consumers should always demand that a contractor post an additional bond that covers the cost of a specific project.

If there’s a bright spot, it is how Spokane’s Jack and Cheryll Davis kept after Stewart, tracking him and collecting evidence until police had no choice but to arrest him. The Davises became amateur detectives shortly after they handed Stewart an $8,481.76 check last June for a workshop.

When he skipped, the Davises called the sheriff’s office. One uninterested detective, they say, told them he “had bigger fish to fry.”

That only made the couple more angry and determined. They tracked down the Brownlees and Chuck Patrick of Tekoa, who gave Stewart $8,400 to start a garage.

Trying to cover his tracks, Stewart filed a phony police report on Aug. 5. He claimed that 18 days earlier, on July 19, some $31,000 of customer money was stolen from his truck.

Stewart’s dubious tale crumbled upon close inspection. Detectives believe the man was out of town the day his money supposedly disappeared.

What a waste of time and energy. Had Stewart applied himself honestly instead of ripping off his customers he would have a thriving, prosperous business.

All he has to show for himself is a dirty reputation and lot of furious people he doesn’t ever want to meet in a dark alley.

“Don Stewart isn’t worth spending a day in jail over,” observes Tekoa’s Patrick. “But if somebody ran over him I sure wouldn’t shed any tears.”


 
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