More than three years after customers of Able Energy Co. began complaining about its business practices, criminal charges have been filed against the owner of the now-defunct company.
Prosecutors in Hennepin County charged Michael James Harvey with theft by swindle for allegedly duping customers in Minnesota and Wisconsin out of more than $1 million in up-front payments for work that was never completed.
Though a conviction on the felony charge would typically result in no more than a year of jail time, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman is seeking an "aggravated sentence" because Harvey allegedly committed "a major economic offense" involving at least 53 victims in Minnesota. That means, if Harvey is convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000, according to a spokeswoman for Freeman.
The investigation was led by the Minnesota Department of Commerce after the Plymouth Police Department requested a probe, according to the spokeswoman.
In a statement of probable cause filed with the court, an investigator in the Commerce Department's fraud bureau noted that Oakdale-based Able Energy continued to solicit new business after state regulators revoked its license in 2018.
"Nevertheless, under defendant's direction, Able Energy continued to enter into new contracts and to take in thousands of dollars from new and existing customers, who were often given the impression that their specific payment would be put towards the work on their specific property when in fact it was being used to fend off creditors and for other purposes, including defendant's personal purposes," according to the investigator, Tracy Kaczrowski.
Among other things, Harvey spent the money at hotels, grocery stores, restaurants and retailers such as C&R Guns and Cabela's, according to the complaint.
"Funds were sometimes transferred directly from business accounts to defendant's personal accounts," prosecutors said in the statement. "These transfers did not appear to take place on a regular schedule, but instead often occurred when defendant's personal account balances ran low."
Harvey, who now lives in River Falls, Wis., did not return calls seeking comment. Court records show that he is not yet represented by an attorney.
In previous interviews, Harvey denied wrongdoing and blamed the company's problems on a handful of former employees.
Harvey's customers greeted news of the criminal charges with mixed reactions.
"I am elated," said David Seidel, who put down $25,000 for a $40,000 solar system for his home in Stacy, Minn., in 2016. "I think he thought he was going to get away with this, but it isn't looking good for him. I hope he gets his just due."
Others were critical of the state, noting that lawmakers failed to pass proposed legislation that would have allowed victims of shady solar installers to receive assistance from a state recovery fund that helps people collect from licensed contractors who fail or commit fraud. The Commerce Department did not take a position on the legislation, according to spokesperson Mo Schriner.
"Law enforcement has been incredibly slow at bringing Mr. Harvey to justice," said Jeff Hall, who won a court judgment of $13,350 against Able Energy in 2018 over an unfinished project in northern Minnesota. "Slower still are the elected representatives who promised to enact meaningful legislation to protect the citizens of Minnesota from unscrupulous solar installers."
Minnesota regulators began investigating Able Energy in 2018, after it began missing the deadline on solar projects across the state. Though the company had completed about 500 installations since its founding in 2010, its finances began to unravel in 2017, when one of its suppliers fell behind on production and was unable to ship needed solar panels to Able and other companies, according to the charges.
Even when the supplier caught up on back orders, however, Able was unable to bounce back. The company no longer had the cash needed to pay for supplies, creating an even bigger logjam. Customers, who typically paid for one-third of total project costs in advance, soon began asking for their money back. Individual customers lost as much as $150,000.
According to the criminal charges, Harvey's former employees told investigators that Harvey "badgered his staff to make false promises to customers regarding installations and project completion times."
In 2018, a state judge ordered Able Energy to repay $1.5 million to about 80 customers. The judge said the company engaged in an "egregious" pattern of fraud, including one instance where an employee forged a client's signature on a contract.
Instead of repaying the money, however, Harvey sought bankruptcy protection a month later. In 2019, after the U.S. trustee filed a lengthy objection to the proceedings, the case was dismissed and Harvey was unable to discharge his debts. The trustee accused Harvey of lying under oath about his finances and misusing corporate funds.