Payment in the construction industry is a complex beast. As a result of the top-down payment system, parties at the bottom of the payment chain are at the mercy of the contractors above. In order to protect themselves, those at the top of the payment chain regularly insert timing provisions and conditions for payment in the form of pay when paid and pay if paid contracts. When these parties have questionable ethics, a project can get messy fast. That’s exactly what happened a few years ago in Rockland, Maine. After losing in civil court, the general contractor misusing funds has recently been indicted for criminal theft.

The Story

The actions of a general contractor have lead to years of litigation and now an indictment for criminal theft. The property owners hired Robert Garrison to contract their home in Rockland, Maine on a $235,000 contract. After paying nearly 85% of the contract, the project was seriously behind schedule.

So where did the money go? After the homeowners filed a civil suit and subpoenaed bank records, the picture became clear. Garrison had been using the funds as a personal account and for general business expenses. According to the general contractor’s records, funds from the homeowners went to personal accounts, cash, and to unpaid sums on other projects. Among these other projects was a project for Garrison’s daughter. While a contractor is certainly entitled to paying himself, the actions here went well beyond that.

As a result of Garrison’s actions, the property owners filed a civil suit and were ultimately awarded over $125,000, including punitive damages. For more details on the civil cases, Bangor Daily News and The Courier-Gazette have the story.

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Mechanics Liens

As you could probably infer, the general contractor misusing funds harmed not only the homeowners, but also subcontractors and suppliers. On the project in question, Garrison failed to pay two suppliers a total of over $30,000. The parties filed mechanics liens on the property as a result. Luckily for the homeowners, the court ordered that Garrison pay the sums rather than foreclosing the lien on the property. The contractor’s misconduct extends beyond this project as well. Garrison failed to pay suppliers on another project nearby which resulted in over $60,000 in liens. In the latter civil suit, Garrison’s wife testified to using some of the funds for Christmas shopping. The court found that the Maine general contractor was liable rather than the homeowners in this suit, too.

After losing these suits, Garrison attempted to file for bankruptcy. Because the contractor’s debts arose from fraudulent actions, however, they could not be discharged. But mechanics liens prevail in most bankruptcy situations anyway. Somehow, the worst was to come.

Indictment

After taking the contractor to civil court, the homeowners on both projects urged the District Attorney to charge Garrison with criminal theft. After reviewing the facts, the District Attorney did in fact charge the contractor with two counts. A grand jury indicted Garrison in early June. As a result, the contractor could face up to 10 years in prison. For more on how mechanics liens and criminal law can intersect, see this post on mechanics liens and criminal law.

Takeaway

The payment structure of the construction industry puts enough of a burden on small businesses already, and those problems are only exacerbated by bad actors. For everyone else, transparency in the industry is an important, attainable goal. While the property owners are certainly not to blame for what happened, lien waivers help promote transparency which was lacking here. The issues from the projects above may have been detected earlier had the owners required lien waivers when progress payments were made. Asking them to waive their rights when the contractor hasn’t made payments would have raised a red flag with subcontractors and suppliers.

For more information on mechanics liens, lien waivers, and other issues in the construction industry, click the button below to follow the blog! For more on lien and bond law in Maine, head to our Maine Mechanics Lien FAQs or see our other posts on Maine.