Laura Guthery’s experience with a kitchen remodeler last summer was so “nightmarish” that she felt it went beyond a contract dispute. So she reported it to both the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry and the Bloomington Police Department.
Now the botched kitchen project in Guthery’s home has turned into a criminal charge against the remodeler, Mark M. Kotek. The department told Bloomington police that a little-known and rarely used Minnesota statute makes it a crime for someone to do contracting work without a license.
In a summons filed Nov. 21 and made public Monday, Kotek, 37, of Minneapolis, was charged with a misdemeanor after an investigation by Bloomington police detective Cory Cardenas.
“I’ve been a detective for 10 years and I had never heard of this,” Cardenas said. “A lot of these people don’t think they’re going to fall into the criminal realm.”
In August, the Department of Labor and Industry issued a cease-and-desist order to Kotek, fined him $10,000 and his company, Kotek Construction, $20,000, penalties that remained unpaid as of Monday. But the department’s director of contractor licensing and enforcement, Charlie Durenberger, welcomes the criminal case and hopes other cities will take similar action.
“Our experience has been, historically, cities are not interested in charging contractors, and it’s long been a frustration for us and homeowners,” Durenberger said.
In the past five years, the department has issued 596 cease-and-desist orders to unlicensed residential building contractors, but only a very small percentage have faced criminal charges, Durenberger said.
Kotek could not be reached for comment Monday. If convicted, he faces 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, although he could receive a harsher sentence if he is found to have violated his probation for a 2009 theft-by-swindle conviction.
Guthery hired Kotek in April after Kotek Construction popped up in a Google search for granite installers. During their first meeting, Kotek recommended new cabinets and appliances in addition to the granite, but he wasn’t pushy, Guthery said.
The next day, he brought samples of what he said were Amish-built cabinets from Indiana and a CAD drawing of the kitchen remodeling plan, she said.
“He seemed very detail-oriented and very personable, and he wasn’t intimidating,” Guthery said.
Guthery paid Kotek $5,100. Kotek promised the project would be completed within two weeks, but six weeks in, Guthery had a bare kitchen. When the cabinets finally came, they were not the custom-made, Amish cabinets he promised, and they were the wrong size. The granite countertop was also too short and could not be installed.
‘Kept blaming everyone else’
Guthery said she realized she had hired the wrong person when Kotek would not answer her phone calls and a subcontractor put a lien on her house. She had sold all her kitchen appliances, and did not have a sink, because she thought the process would be done quickly.
For months, she bought takeout and washed dishes in her bathtub.
“He kept blaming everyone else,” Guthery said. “Then I looked him up in the Minnesota court lookup and I had a small heart attack.”
Kotek “has a history of criminal charges and convictions for issuing worthless checks, wrongfully obtaining unemployment insurance benefits, theft by swindle, child neglect and domestic abuse,” the Department of Labor and Industry wrote in its disciplinary action against Kotek after Guthery filed a complaint.
Kotek Construction was licensed under someone else’s name. “Had the department been aware of Kotek’s involvement with [the company], it would have sought the denial of the company’s license application,” according to the enforcement order.
‘Get him off the streets’
For Guthery, who is in the final stages of remodeling her kitchen, the charges give her hope that her ordeal will soon be over.
“We need to get him off the streets and stop him from taking people’s money,” she said.
Cardenas said he found out about the 21-year-old criminal statute only after speaking with the labor department investigator. He said the Bloomington Police Department plans to present more of these cases to the city attorney’s office.
Durenberger said the department used to regularly refer cases to city attorneys, but the “response was completely underwhelming.”
“When we had conversations, what we basically heard was that it was not important, or ‘we don’t have the resources and this is really a civil matter.’ We gave up on sending them out because no one ever charged them.”
Durenberger said he was “gratified but surprised” that Bloomington decided to press charges.
“The whole issue of unlicensed activity is a real sore spot in the industry,” Durenberger said. “We’ll support anything that discouraged unlicensed activity, especially against those that are taking money or harming consumers in other ways.”