Of the dozens of building contractors punished by the state of Mississippi for preying on victims of Hurricane Katrina, one stands out from the crowd of mostly small-time, fly-by-night operators: Call Henry, a Florida-based firm with hundreds of employees that each year earns tens of millions of dollars from contracts with the Department of Defense, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The company boasts on its Web site about its rosy prospects for new federal business. But at the same time, it has closed up shop in the hurricane zone and is ignoring customers there who say that their homes are falling apart after Call Henry repaired or rebuilt them. The state Attorney General's Office is considering launching a criminal investigation against the firm. And the company is appealing a $10,000 fine that the Mississippi State Board of Contractors levied after finding that Call Henry exhibited “gross negligence or misconduct” in its contracting business.
“They shafted people right and left,” said a sobbing Mary Bobbitt of Waveland, Miss., who hired Call Henry to fix her three-bedroom, one-bath ranch-style home after it was inundated by Katrina’s deadly flood tide. “They came in from Florida thinking they could make a whole bunch of money and then they left. They just left us.”
Complaints against Call Henry are a small fraction of the Katrina-related accusations against contractors that have been investigated by Mississippi building officials and the state Attorney General’s Office. The attorney general has 377 open investigations of contractor fraud and has made 58 arrests. “Mississippi experienced more of this type of fraud in the wake of Katrina than ever before,” said spokeswoman Jan Schaefer.
Separately, the state is looking into whether the company reimbursed Mississippi for thousands of dollars in sales tax it collected on its jobs in the state.
Company refuses to answer questions
The company refused to answer any questions from msnbc.com concerning its work in the state.
But interviews with about a dozen Call Henry customers in Mississippi and Louisiana, and other sources familiar with the firm’s work, indicate the company left a wide trail of tears, broken hearts and botched jobs. At least two families in Hancock County have sued the company, alleging that their homes still need hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of reconstruction, long after Call Henry crews finished working on them.
The homeowners tell strikingly similar stories of how they came to do business with the firm. Their property devastated by Katrina and local builders booked up for months, they were attracted by Mississippi newcomer Call Henry’s advertising and promises to get them back in their homes quickly.
They said the firm’s president, Henry Foster, visited with many of them personally. Tall, bespectacled, neatly dressed and charming, Foster exuded a take-charge demeanor they found reassuring after their harrowing ordeal.
“He took me,” customer Tina Falgout of Bay St. Louis said of Foster. “He painted this big, beautiful picture. He told me I would have this beautiful house when I was done.”
Dr. Helen Fosmire of Gulfport had a similar reaction. “He seemed to be very experienced and down to earth and reasonable to deal with,” said Fosmire, a radiological oncologist who already had been burned by a roofing contractor when she met with Foster.
Some customers liked the fact that Call Henry appeared to be a family-run business. They said Foster assigned his son, Chris, the company’s human resources manager, and his daughter, Robin Stroud, already a Gulf Coast resident, to run the Mississippi operation. A grandson also worked on a construction crew, they said.
When prospective clients went to the Call Henry Web site, they found press clippings and marketing information describing the firm as one of the fastest-growing private companies in America. The site says the firm offers a wide array of services, from “aerospace test operations” to a “proprietary enterprise software system,” and brags of numerous federal honors and outstanding evaluations for service, safety and efficiency.
‘One Call Does it All’
Named after and run by Foster, an engineer and former Boeing employee whose résumé touts “forty years of government and commercial technical service experience,” the firm did more than $46 million worth of business with the federal government in 2006, mostly providing facilities operation and maintenance, according to data compiled by OMB Watch.
For some customers, though, the deciding factor was Call Henry’s motto, downright folksy amid all the information about aerospace work and software: “One Call Does it All.”
They said Foster assured them that the slogan meant the company had a large staff of carpenters, painters, electricians and other workers, a huge advantage in a disaster area with a desperate labor shortage. Call Henry’s Web site currently claims that the firm’s “Restoration, Repair and Construction Services” division employs workers in at least 14 construction specialties, from plumbing to drywall. The site says the company performs at least $65 million worth of construction-related services a year.
But as soon as work began on their homes, some of Call Henry’s customers saw quite a different picture.
“He said he did not use subcontractors,” recalled Lonnie Falgout, who with his wife, Tina, signed a $131,000 contract for Call Henry to rebuild their Katrina-ravaged canal-front home. “Three weeks into my job, I found out that everyone on my job was a subcontractor.”
'Don't call me again'
Nor were the subcontractors proficient, said Falgout, ticking off a long list of problems with the work they did, including buckling floors, bad plumbing, electrical problems, improperly installed siding and structural defects. When Falgout tried to get Call Henry to stand behind its work, all Foster offered were excuses, Falgout said. In one of their last telephone conversations, he recalled, Foster told him, “Don’t call me again. I don’t want to talk to any of you people from Mississippi.”
Armed with a sheaf of reports from private and public building inspectors and engineers that conclude his house is in a state of “progressive structural decline,” Falgout has filed suit against Call Henry, Foster and Stroud, his daughter. One builder estimated it would take at least $214,000 to properly repair the Falgouts’ home, where the couple still lives. Another would not provide an estimate without first stripping the home to its studs for further inspection.
Pat and Janet Cain, who contracted for $171,000 with Call Henry to rebuild their home in Kiln, Miss., tell a similar story. They said the company rotated its crews, using at least three superintendents, four electricians, three plumbers, and three teams of carpenters over a few months. “Just about everything that was done in that house was done, taken apart and redone again,” Pat Cain said. “Things were done three and four times.”
At one point, workmanship on the house was so bad that a county inspector halted the job. In December, believing their house was no longer safe to occupy, the Cains moved into a rental in nearby Diamondhead. “The latest repair estimates are over $240,000,” said Janet Cain. Like the Falgouts, the couple has filed suit against Call Henry.
Bobbitt, the Waveland resident, said she raided her retirement account and paid Call Henry “all I had” — about $57,000 — to repair her home. Almost as soon as the crews left, “Different things started falling apart, doors didn’t close properly, where the tub meets the wall is separating, underneath the toilet is a big crack in the wall.”
Even customers that Call Henry cited as potential references to gain new jobs told msnbc.com that they were not satisfied with the firm’s work and would not use the company again.
“They had people turning over all the time,” said John Miller of Biloxi, Miss., who paid the company $19,000 for carpet, painting and drywall work. “You never saw the same people twice.”
A host of other complaints
In addition to sloppy work, Call Henry customers reported numerous other problems with the subcontractors.
Fosmire, the Gulfport doctor who paid Call Henry about $100,000 for restoration work, said, “One day I came home and a complete stranger was sitting in my living room watching TV and drinking drinks from our refrigerator. I was very uneasy. I asked him who he was and he said he was there to work on the shutters but he got hot and needed a drink.” During the course of Call Henry’s work on their home, Fosmire said, watches and firearms worth more than $45,000 were stolen. Despite assurances that the company’s insurance would pay for the loss, Fosmire said it never did.
Lori Burnette of Ocean Springs, Miss., said another Call Henry subcontractor “got very verbally ugly, cursing and everything,” while working on a job at the home she shares with her husband, Steve. “She jumped in my face, screaming at me, cursing at me,” she said.
As their problems with Call Henry mounted, some customers began sharing information about their experiences and digging deeper into the company’s business dealings.
When Falgout inquired with the state tax office, he said he was told that Call Henry had not paid any sales tax, even though the company had charged and collected thousands in state sales taxes on his and other jobs. The Falgouts said they were asked by the state to provide documentation of that. Tax commission spokeswoman Kathy Waterbury said state law prohibited her from discussing “any individual’s tax information.”
The state Attorney General’s office is also looking into complaints against Call Henry. While spokeswoman Jan Schaefer told msnbc.com in an e-mail that “it is our policy to neither confirm nor deny” that an investigation is under way, Falgout received a copy of a March 17 letter that the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division sent to Call Henry asking the company to respond to his complaints. "We are attempting to accurately gather the facts necessary for a resolution to this complaint or determine if this office should conduct a criminal investigation," the letter reads in part.
Maximum in fines
As a result of complaints from the Falgouts and Cains, a committee of the Mississippi State Board of Contractors held an Aug. 21 hearing on Call Henry’s activities in the state. On Oct. 10, the board ratified the panel’s finding that “the conduct of Call Henry constitutes gross negligence or misconduct” and fined the firm the maximum $10,000.
Charles Sharman, an official with the state board, noted that by the time of the hearing Call Henry’s Mississippi contractor’s license had expired. If the firm had still had a license in August, “it would have been revoked,” Sharman said.
Sharman said the company has not paid the fine. An attorney who represented Call Henry in that case said the ruling had been appealed, which was confirmed by court officials.
“We’ve done as much as we can do,” Sharman said. “We’re not going to give them a license again,” he added, although he acknowledged that Call Henry would be able to handle jobs for the federal government within Mississippi without a state license.
The Fosters suffered a family tragedy of their own in the aftermath of Katrina. On Aug. 30, 2006, Chris Foster, Henry Foster’s son and a onetime supervisor of Call Henry’s Mississippi operations, was shot and killed by a police officer responding to a call at his Titusville, Fla., home. Police said Chris Foster, 50, was under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs when he charged the officer while brandishing two knives.
That has led some Call Henry customers in Mississippi to speculate that the death of the younger man may have something to do with the company’s rapid departure from the state and refusal to deal with the lingering claims.
Meanwhile, preparing his case against Foster has become a near obsession for Falgout, a retired salesman with a determination honed by three decades as a youth baseball umpire that people ought to do the right thing.
He’s especially irked that Foster and Call Henry are able to carry on their business with the federal government while he and other former customers are left to wonder what’s to become of their homes.
“He needs to be brought back to Mississippi to look these people in their eyes, see the harm he’s allowed to be done, pay to get it right or be put in jail for contractor fraud,” Falgout said.
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