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Family sues Sandusky, CHIP program under federal racketeering law

Jason Singer • Jun 22, 2015 at 8:28 PM


Another local family troubled by a years-long housing scandal has filed a lawsuit against Sandusky.

In 2006, First Street residents Derrick and LeAnn Close watched as workers allegedly added faulty electrical wiring and heating and a shoddy porch to their home.

Ill-fitting doors and windows were installed while, among other problems, the Close family was exposed to lead paint as workers from the city's Community Housing Improvement Program, or CHIP, did the work.

The Close family paid top-of-the-line prices for substandard work, according to their lawsuit, and to this day they haven't received adequate repairs.

The lawsuit, filed in Erie County Common Pleas Court this past week, lists four defendants: the city of Sandusky; former city housing employee Mark Warren; contractor New Horizon Development; and New Horizon owner Steven Strang.

The complaint accuses the defendants of breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, violations of the Ohio Consumer Sales Act, unjust enrichment and violations of RICO.

RICO, or Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, is a decades-old statute most often used to prosecute organized crime syndicates.

Warren is the only city employee listed in the complaint, but the lawsuit said additional defendants and claims could be added as the discovery process continues.

"The pattern of corrupt activity was a scheme ... by Defendants to raise substantial revenue for the enterprise though deceptive home improvement," the lawsuit said.

The defendants are accused of intimidating people to engage in various crimes, such as tampering with records, theft and securing writings by deception.

Under RICO's definitions, these activities constitute as racketerring and a form of criminal enterprise, said Roger Stark, the Closes' attorney.

Carbon-copied complaint

The Close's lawsuit mirrors another lawsuit that homeowner Victoria Irby filed in 2008.

Irby claims Warren and Strang pressured her into unnecessary repairs and then used sub-standard materials to complete the work.

In one instance, workers replaced her 7-year-old roof when it didn't even leak or have any obvious shortcomings.

Coincidentally, the new roof leaks, Irby's lawsuit says.

Irby also says workers installed new windows, a furnace and a hot water heater that weren't needed.

Her attorneys claim the substandard work was deliberate.

Irby received a "new" water heater that was billed as top-of-the-line. But when investigators traced the product's serial number, they found it was a low-quality knockoff.

New Horizon actually placed a sticker from a higher-quality water heater on the lower-quality water to trick Irby, said Stark, who is representing Irby as well.

Irby's lawsuit is still pending. She asked for a jury trial, but Strang and New Horizon insisted the case should be settled with an arbitrator.

An arbitrator could only award damages for the amount of work specified in the contract. A jury, however, could assess other damages.

In October 2008, a local magistrate ruled a jury, not an arbitrator, should hear the case. Strang appealed but Judge Roger Binette upheld the magistrate's ruling.

Strang's later appeals to higher courts were also denied.

The city, meanwhile, has counter-sued Strang and New Horizon for more than $2 million.

City officials claim Strang and Warren conspired to defraud at least 22 homeowners of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The city says it can't be held accountable for the Warren and New Horizon Development's actions.

Bill Lang, the city's attorney, said he hasn't received any files from the Close lawsuit, though he said if it's similar to the Irby lawsuit the city will likely file a second counterclaim against New Horizon.

More to come?

The Office of Inspector General -- a division of the Ohio Attorney General's office -- is still conducting an investigation into the scandal, city officials said.

Eric Bizjak, the original investigator, recently received a promotion. The new investigator met with city officials last month.

The FBI is also looking into the matter, Stark said.

Stark said he'll likely merge aspects of the Close and Irby cases, the latter of which is set for trial early in 2011.

The Close family's lawsuit mentions other city employees, but not as defendants because it's unclear if those employees deliberately contributed to the scandal, Stark said.

Even so, Stark is confident that others should be held accountable for the suffering of Sandusky residents whose homes were destroyed.

The discovery phase could lead to additional defendants.

"Either through poor oversight -- or even worse, no oversight -- they did this to many families over many years," Stark said. "That's just unacceptable."

Earlier this year, Strang said declined to comment.

"I'd love to tell you my side of the story, but I've been advised by my lawyer against it," Strang said. "All I can tell you is you've got a story there, but you're looking at it the wrong way. I'm sorry. I'd love to comment, but I can't."

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