Beware “free energy audit” pitches

PLANT CITY, FLORIDA - Joseph McCullough runs All Solar Power Services Inc. He is not licensed to do solar work.

David Beers runs Guardian Solar & Energy LLC, yet says: "I don't sell any solar at all. I want nothing to do with it."

That's good, because he too lacks a solar contractor's license.

In fact, neither Beers nor McCullough is licensed to do any kind of work in Florida.

Charles Waterhouse of Plant City knows neither man. But he does have some new solar exhaust fans. He got them after a pitchman claiming to work for "Guardian Solar" sold him equipment from "All Solar Power Inc."

Waterhouse says the workmanship was shoddy. He complained, leading to a consumer investigation with McCullough at its center.

Along the way, a licensed businessman was surprised to find his company's name caught up in the dispute.

McCullough, based in Hillsborough County, and Beers, based in Pinellas, are two of a growing list of businesspeople scrutinized by local and state authorities.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has received hundreds of complaints about offers of solar products and services that begin with a proposal for a free energy check.

"It's an industry," said John Zajac, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau of Southwest Florida in Clearwater, "that's attracted some suspect people."

Why solar?

It's lucrative. Basic energy-saving solar products can run upward of $10,000. It tempts homeowners seeking to reduce energy costs in tough economic times. Tax credits and cash rebates from the federal government and utility companies make it affordable.

The potential of reduced energy costs is what caught the attention of Waterhouse. A man knocked on his door with an offer of a free energy audit and some solar and energy-saving products.

"He talked a good game," Waterhouse recalls.

For $5,000, all of which would be financed, he would get solar exhaust fans, insulation for the attic and a timer and a blanket for his water heater.

Waterhouse checked the contract for a business name and license number and signed the deal.

When the work was done, Waterhouse learned the ducts weren't properly sealed wires from the new water heater timer were not properly covered a new SmartCool device was decreasing energy efficiency.

He called All Solar Power Inc. to complain but was told that the company had no record of doing work for him and that the phone number on his contract was not the company's number.

He complained to Plant City police, who called the issue a "civil matter." Undeterred, Waterhouse continued pushing his complaint until the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency began to investigate.

Working with investigators, Waterhouse soon discovered there were two "All Solar Power'' companies — one licensed, one not.

He would later learn there also are two ''Guardian Solar'' companies — one licensed, one not.

Waterhouse's contract listed the telephone number for McCullough's business, "All Solar Power Services Inc.," but the name, license number and address of the similarly named "All Solar Power Inc." The latter is a licensed company owned by Richard and Jo-Ann Lavigne.

Although McCullough provided some marketing services for the Lavignes, they say they did not know McCullough was using their company name for contracting services.

"I think what they were doing was going out and trying to sell energy products," said Jo-Ann Lavigne, who, with her husband, has run the business since 1977.

McCullough declined comment, other than to say: "We're fair and honest in everything we do. We're clean."

But Hillsborough consumer protection identified McCullough's company, All Solar Power Services Inc., at 1915 N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, as the business responsible for Waterhouse's solar troubles.

The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation is investigating allegations that McCullough operated without a license.

McCullough has also come under scrutiny of local law enforcement.

In September 2010, the 49-year-old was arrested and charged with driving under the influence and driving with his license suspended. He pleaded no contest to both charges and was found guilty.

In 2007, he pleaded no contest to possession of marijuana, driving with an invalid license and reckless driving. He was found guilty of reckless driving. The judge withheld adjudication on the other two charges, which means McCullough will not have a conviction on his record after completing probation.

McCullough has also had troubles with the Internal Revenue Service. It filed liens against him in 2009 for failing to pay more than $5,700 in personal income taxes. No lien release has been filed.

In addition to being president of All Solar Power Services Inc., McCullough is listed in corporate records as manager of Florida Energy Auditors LLC and Solar Power Specialist Services LLC, which are both located at his Dale Mabry address.

David Beers' link to the case stems from the odd way the Waterhouse deal went down. The contract said the work would be done by All Solar Power Inc., but the pitchman identified himself as being from Guardian Solar.

Waterhouse was curious. What is Guardian Solar?

It turned out there are two Guardian Solar companies.

David Beers runs Guardian Solar & Energy LLC. He acknowledged he knows McCullough and the salesman who approached Waterhouse, but denied any involvement in the matter.

Beers, 51, is an unlicensed contractor under investigation by the Pinellas County State Attorney's Office for allegations of marketing himself as a licensed contractor in incidents unrelated to the Waterhouse matter.

The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation is investigating allegations that Beers operated without a license. The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board issued Beers four citations, alleging he marketed himself as a contractor for energy audits and solar work under multiple business names without a license.

Rod Fischer, executive director of the licensing board, said his agency is also investigating complaints that Beers used other companies' information on contracts without permission.

Use of other companies' licenses has been one of the problems Fischer said he is encountering with solar product offers.

"In some cases, they're grabbing somebody's license and putting it on their paperwork," Fischer said.

Glen "Danny" Upchurch says that is what Beers did to him. Upchurch runs "Guardian Solar Inc." He says Beers created a company similar in name Guardian Solar & Energy LLC to confuse people and take his business.

When contacted by the St. Petersburg Times, Upchurch said he did not know "Guardian Solar'' even came up in Waterhouse's complaint.

Upchurch said he was not surprised, because Beers copied his company's name and used it on another job.

"Those two companies work together," Upchurch said of Beers' and McCullough's businesses. Beers "took my name. He was working with All Solar Power."

"It's a mess," said Upchurch, who is licensed. "I already talked to a lawyer. A lot of confusion has been going on."

Upchurch said he has complained to the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board about Beers.

"It's been a nightmare," he said.

Upchurch noted that unlicensed contractors will employ various tactics to skirt licensing laws when they have had legal or financial troubles that might preclude them from getting local and state licenses.

Like McCullough, Beers has his troubles with the IRS. In December, the IRS filed a $60,000 personal income tax lien against Beers. That follows a $91,000 federal tax lien in 2001 and a $53,000 federal tax lien in 1997. No lien releases have been filed.

In addition to being listed in state corporate records as the manager of Guardian Solar & Energy, Beers also is the manager of Florida Energy Management LLC and a director of Advanced Window & Tex Coat Inc.

Beers denies trying to steal any company's name or business. He said he avoids any work that requires licensing and was not involved at all in Waterhouse's case.

Waterhouse said the troubles he faced taught him a lesson about checking out the companies he deals with.

Hillsborough consumer protection closed the investigation after Waterhouse got his $5,000 back from the finance company.

"After several months of back and forth, we did get our money back," Waterhouse said with a sigh of relief. "So it's over."


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