The contractor never showed up to do the work, and now you can't get your money back. Unfortunately it's a common complaint but not one that's easy to prove and prosecute. But why is it so hard to press criminal charges in these cases?
It's tough to prove someone set out to steal your money. Are they a bad business person or a thief? So, most of these contractor disputes end up in civil court, but one Milwaukee woman wants her case, now in criminal court, to be a warning for others.
He reportedly owes Julie Brandenburg $13,000. Nathanael Potts said he feels "horrid" about what happened. We caught up to Potts at his recent hearing. He claims he didn't steal the money and told us, "I got into another job, and it just snowballed."
Not a story Julie is buying, "there were a series of excuses, from car accidents to jobs that had to be started." Potts came highly recommended by friends so in April of 2016 Julie gave him the $13,000 as a down payment to rehab a space into a music studio. A lifelong dream for this music teacher. She told us, "I agreed to give him that because I wanted him to buy the right things. I knew he was a new business owner."
Potts never showed up to do the work. At one point he told Julie he used the money to buy materials for the job. In an email communication, Julie asked him for those receipts, "and he responded with 'I'll give you your money back.' "
He never did so last November Julie sued Potts in civil court and won a judgement. She also went one step further and brought her case to the Milwaukee County District Attorney.
Deputy District Attorney, Kent Lovern, pointed out, "if it's someone who we can prove is a thief, then those are the cases that we prosecute." Which Lovern said doesn't happen often. He commented the office gets a lot of complaints but most don't result in criminal charges. "It could be a matter of the contractor not being a good business person," Lovern told us. In those cases, the DA refers people to civil court; it can be tough to prove a contractor stole the money. "It's a matter often of trying to trace where money is paid from customer to contractor, and where the money goes after that."
Potts still claims he spent Julie's $13,000 on materials and told us, "it's in a storage locker out by my place in Detroit." Potts also said he plans to repay the money because "it's the right thing to do."
With a lot of help from family and friends Julie pieced together her music studio and is now focused on what she calls the important part. The students, the music, and the piano, "it's all here and that's what matters." Julie has a warning for others, "I'm a smart woman, but this can happen to anyone." She hopes the criminal case against Potts will help protect other consumers.
Potts says he's no longer doing contract work and is now employed with a construction company. His plea hearing is set for the end of September. Potts did tell the judge he will pay $2,000 on what he owes before then.
If you are hiring a contractor here are ways you can vet them:
Check state court records for civil and criminal cases
The Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection tracks complaints against contractors
What to do before you sign a contract
Theft By Contractors/state statute