When Richard Prati describes his initial impression of Brad Franklin, he ticks off a string of positive words: “Bubbly, affable, a big teddy bear, friendly, outgoing, gregarious...” but the curt tone in which Prati spits them makes the kind words sound like insults.
When he describes his impression of Franklin now, after winning a $3 million dollar civil suit against the man, the words he uses are “liar,” “thief,” and “con artist.” Richard, his wife Sheri, and others who dealt with Franklin, owner of the now defunct companies Franklin Construction and Wellington Builders, feel virtually the same way.
Richard and Sheri, who lived at the time in Littleton, Colo., had dreamed of building a home in Whitefish ever since vacationing there in 2000. In late 2002, they began checking into building their dream home in the Whitefish area.
The home was to be the capstone on a pillar of achievements amassed throughout Richard’s life.
Since graduating college, Richard, now 40, says he has worked about 80 hours weekly. He says he’s always been driven, having grown up in housing projects on the west side of Dallas, Texas, “poor and hungry,” working hard through high school and college at Vanderbilt University, and getting his MBA at the University of Rochester in New York. His hard work paid off. He got a job on Wall Street at Dean Witter right out of graduate school, and is now CEO of American Technology Research, a business that studies stocks for mutual and hedge funds, a company with analysts whose opinions are quoted in Forbes and Business Week. Richard had achieved his version of the American dream, but he’d worked hard, and he missed his family. His plan was to work a few more years and then retire to Montana to spend more time with his wife and two boys.
He says he wanted the Montana lifestyle for his children—the skiing, hiking and fishing lifestyle—rather than the city life he had always known. “It’s a different environment here,” says Richard. “It’s a great place to live life.”
But Richard’s dream home was out of his price range. In fact, it was out of most people’s price ranges. The house the Pratis wanted to build, they were told, would cost millions. Richard had succeeded in getting himself debt-free, and he wasn’t about to take on a mortgage for a second home. The couple wasn’t going to settle for anything less than exactly what they wanted, either. They wanted ski-in ski-out, for one. And Sheri says she spent hours thumbing Architectural Digest, Mountain Living and Timber and Frame, ripping out design ideas she liked and organizing them in an expandable file folder. She wanted certain details, like farmer’s stone rather than the more common granite.
“This was supposed to be the ulitmate, always-have-it family home,” she says.
So in late 2002, after a conversation with their designer, the Pratis decided their dream was still a few years off.
At the time, Brad Franklin was remodeling a portion of the Pratis’ home in Littleton. Franklin, Richard says, heard him talking about the home and came to him with an idea.
According to Richard, Franklin offered to build the Whitefish house for $750,000, about half of what Montana builders estimated.
“How?” asked Richard.
“Most builders mark up materials 15 to 25 percent,” Richard says Franklin told him. “I’ll just work for labor. And I’ll negotiate on prices for materials. Most builders just take whatever price they’re given.”
Franklin said he’d also do the finish work himself at far below normal labor prices, Richard says, and would build the custom cabinetry himself.
According to Richard, Franklin said he’d live on the property, work 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and have their dream home built in a year.
“It’ll give me a good job, and you the house you want,” Richard recalls Franklin saying.
Richard was happy with the remodeling work Franklin had done so far. He’d had friends hire Franklin, and they’d also been satisfied. And Richard liked Franklin. Having Franklin build his home would not only save him money, but it was something he could feel good about.
The Pratis bought a lot on Big Mountain, facing the ski resort, in the high-end Sunrise Ridge neighborhood. In February 2003, Richard says, he and Franklin shook hands on the deal.
“That’s how I’ve always operated,” Richard says. “If someone says they’ll do something, they’ll do it.”
Besides, everything was going to be above-board. Franklin was to send him receipts for expenses, and when the house was complete, Richard would personally audit the finances.
Franklin opened an account in the name of Franklin Builders at Whitefish’s First Interstate Bank on April 10, with a $30,000 check from the Pratis, and deposited another check for $100,950 on April 30. The account was for buying materials related to the home and for paying workers. By April 11, according to bank records, Franklin had already spent thousands on himself. By the time he quit working on the Pratis’ home, the dream they were so close to reaching would be nearly destroyed.
“An absolute plague”
The story the Pratis uncovered when they finally realized that Franklin’s promises were too good to be true is becoming more common in the Flathead, according to Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Corrigan says, “both in terms of contractors who are inept, and contractors who are fly-by-night crooks.”
“This is a symptom of a booming construction industry,” he adds. “People come here from out of state with a lot of money, and they get taken advantage of. You get in, you want to trust people, you don’t want to be a jerk, and sometimes you end up getting the shaft.”
Kalispell lawyer Chad Wold takes Corrigan’s assessment of the situation a bit further: “It’s an absolute plague,” he says.
Wold says his law firm gets one to two calls per month from people who say they’ve been victimized by inept or crooked contractors. Most of those complaints never go anywhere, he says, because it’s so difficult to recover the money. He notes that Montana contractors are not required to be bonded or insured, and that they can often avoid paying awards after civil judgements by declaring bankruptcy. Withholding cash doesn’t work either, he says, because the builder can easily put a lien on the home. To get around the lien, the homeowner can file suit, says Wold, but “If the court finds reason to award even one penny to the defendant,” the plaintiff—the homeowner—has to pay the builder’s attorney fees.
For instance, Wold is currently representing half a dozen people who have filed suit against Keystone Contractors. About a year ago the Flathead County Sheriff’s office began receiving complaints that Richard and Amy Ockey, the owners of Keystone Contractors, had skipped town with money meant for finishing construction on a number of homes. The Ockeys eventually turned themselves in, and face civil and criminal charges.
Complaints about Franklin aren’t as widespread as those about the Ockeys, but at least one other valley resident is accusing him of wrongdoing. While working on the Pratis’ home, Franklin’s construction crew also worked on Kalispell resident Gary Solomon’s house, under the name Wellington Builders. Unlike the Pratis, Solomon had a contract. And according to Franklin’s former foreman, Solomon had scrutinized it well. It didn’t help. Solomon contracted Franklin to build a 1,468 sq. ft. addition to his home for his 90-year-old father at a cost of $105,000. When Franklin was finished, Solomon alleges, $123,000 worth of work was required to fix and finish the addition. Solomon declined to speak with the Independent, saying the incident had already caused him enough embarrassment.
Part of the problem, according to Katie Chamberlain, executive officer of the Flathead Building Association, the local chapter of the nonprofit Montana Building Industry Association, is that Flathead builders are swamped with work.
“It’s very difficult to get a good builder,” she says. “There’s quite a waiting list.”
People get ripped off, she says, when they go looking for someone who’ll build quickly and for a low price.
“Unfortunately,” she says, “you usually get what you pay for.”
In the end, the Pratis would have been happy to have gotten what they paid for.
“I didn’t think
he was a thief”
Richard says it didn’t take long for problems to emerge. According to Richard, Franklin never sent receipts, always saying he was too busy building. Richard, still working his 80 hours a week, was too busy to do much about it.
He’d get frustrated, he says, but Franklin always had an excuse, and a date in the near future when everything would be sent. In the meantime, he always needed more money. The Pratis kept sending it, tens of thousands monthly.
A year went by, the house was barely half-finished, and the project was already over budget. The Pratis eventually had to take out a loan against the value of their Colorado house to continue funding their Whitefish dream home. They started to freak out. But when they took their concerns to Franklin, he had plausible excuses. He said, according to Richard, that it was the rocky mountaintop site they chose that was making it difficult and expensive to grade and put in the foundation. He reminded them, too, that he was going to be doing a lot more of the carpentry from there on out.
“That’s where the savings will kick in,” Richard says Franklin told him.
The Pratis again asked for receipts, but Franklin, Richard says, responded, “Either I can spend time getting you the receipts, or I can work on the house now. Where do you want me to focus?”
They had their doubts, but the Pratis decided they’d probably just end up losing more money if they switched builders at that point.
“I thought he was incompetent,” says Richard. “I didn’t think he was a thief.”
While the Pratis experienced Franklin’s ineptitude from a distance, Eric Robertson saw trouble from the inside. Robertson, who has worked in the construction industry for 20 years, started work on the Pratis’ home for Franklin in spring 2004 as a tile setter. After a few months, Franklin made him the site foreman.
Franklin made a good first impression on Robertson as well.
“Everyone thought he was the richest, most successful guy in town,” Robertson says now, remembering Franklin’s collection of snowmobiles, motorcycles and other motorized vehicles.
But when Robertson started work, he saw problems right away. For starters, he says, no one seemed to be in charge of the 20 to 25 people working on the Pratis’ home. Franklin, he says, was never there.
“It was an absolute nightmare.”
Robertson says workers were showing up too hung over, too drunk or too high to get any work done. Projects that should have taken days were taking weeks. Quality of craftsmanship was consistently subpar.
Even the cabinets.
“Brad never built one cabinet there,” but instead had someone with little experience do the work, Robertson says. “And they’re all botched. There was never any forethought that went into anything.”
He saw other problems, too. According to Robertson, Franklin’s system for filing information pertinent to construction of the home, such as receipts, was to shove them into shoe boxes.
While working on the Pratis’ home, Robertson says Franklin also had his crew doing side jobs. As foreman, Robertson says his pay was supposed to be $40 per hour. But after finishing one two-week job, he says, Franklin told him his pay had been reduced to $25 per hour for the entire period.
He says Franklin apologized, explaining that he’d bid the job too low, and so couldn’t afford to pay as much.
Still, he says, he didn’t think Franklin was crooked. He seemed too successful.
“If you were to meet me for the first time, and I’m wearing a $2,000 suit, would you feel comfortable leaving $100 sitting on the table for me to watch while you went to the bathroom? Would the guy in the $2,000 suit take your money?”
And besides the money Franklin appeared to have, there was the job itself.
“Only upper-end companies build million-dollar homes,” Robertson says. Franklin, he says, must have known what he was doing to have the job in the first place.
So Robertson worked and kept his concerns to himself.
Robertson’s stepfather, Bob Fousek, who had spent much of his life as a general contractor, was finishing his own house down the street from the Prati property. He says he introduced himself to Franklin one day and the two of them hit it off. Soon, Fousek says, Franklin was stopping by his house nearly every evening.
“We got to be good friends,” Fousek says. “He had all the security codes to my house. He’d watch over it for us when we were gone. I would have trusted Brad with anything.”
Like everyone else, he’d eventually discovered his trust had been misplaced.
“I was so stupid”
Over Christmas 2005, nearly two years after Richard had embarked on his handshake deal with Franklin, the Pratis invited 13 family members out for Christmas at what was supposed to be their nearly finished house. It had been about a month since Sheri had last visited, and they were expecting to see dramatic improvements. But when they arrived, Franklin’s crew still had a lot of work to do. According to the Pratis, the cabinets, closets, woodwork, floors, driveway paving and water system were still unfinished. The downstairs was unliveable, in some places the Sheetrock wasn’t even in. With the floors unfinished and rough, everyone had to wear shoes in the house. The oven wasn’t working, so they had to barbecue Christmas dinner, Sheri says.
“It was like camping in a house,” she says.
For the next two months, the Pratis stayed at the house to watch Franklin, but even with the couple there, they say, not much got done, and Franklin told them it was because they were in the way. In February, they say, Franklin asked them to leave for a few months so he and his crew could finish.
Franklin, they say, promised everything would be done by the end of April.
“I wrote him a ton of checks,” Richard says, for several specific projects, including the driveway and the water filtration system, and to pay invoices from masons, suppliers and a heating and cooling company.
The Pratis gave him until the first week in March, and then Sheri went again to visit. When she arrived, she immediately called Richard, crying.
“There’s not one thing different,” she told him.
Richard says he called Franklin and asked, “Brad, what’s going on? She says there’s nothing different.”
“That’s just not true,” Richard says Franklin told him. “It takes us just one day to put in cabinets, drawers, shelves…”
Franklin told them he was just waiting on Bob Fousek to stain and lacquer the cabinets, shelving units, doors and other woodwork. He told them the pouring of the driveway and the floor finishing were scheduled for the following week.
“You’ll be amazed at how quickly it’ll happen,” Richard says he was told. “You just don’t know anything about building.”
But Sheri returned to Colorado skeptical. The Pratis decided to call Fousek and ask how long it would be until the cabinets were done.
Fousek remembers Sheri calling and asking when the woodwork would be finished.
“Sheri,” he says he told her, “I don’t have a thing here.”
The Pratis’ jaws dropped. But soon Franklin was on the phone, denying that he’d ever claimed Fousek had the cabinets, Richard says.
“Brad, I speak English,” Richard responded. “Don’t lie. I know what you said.”
“Then I misspoke,” Franklin told him.
He promised that the house was just two weeks from being finished, he just needed a little more money.
Richard sent what he told Franklin was the last check.
He has trouble explaining exactly why he sent more money at that point.
“I was so stupid,” he admits. “I’m supposed to be a smart, cynical guy. But my attitude was, I just wanted this to be over with. It was cutting into my job, my family, my sleep. I just wanted it over.”
“[The Pratis] were partly to blame,” says Fousek, who had come to mistrust Franklin after partnering with him for a short time on a small development project. “But on the other hand, I can understand. Richard’s up at 4:30 every day and still working at 9:30 a lot of the time,” he says. “Once he got the same feelings [about Franklin] I was getting, he had put so much money into it he didn’t want to believe it.”
Two weeks passed, and, not surprisingly, little additional work was finished.
Richard called and asked again for receipts, saying this time if they didn’t come, he’d call a lawyer.
“You don’t need to do that,” he says he was told, with a promise that they’d be on the way.
Richard, finally being honest with himself, called a lawyer, stopped writing checks, and had Fousek change the locks on the house. Franklin and his crew were supposed to be there only if Fousek let him in. At about the same time, Eric Robertson says Franklin shorted him $1,200 over two weeks. He quit working for Franklin, called the Pratis, and told them what he was seeing.
A few days after the locks had been changed, Fousek let Franklin’s crew in. They collected their tools and loaded them into a pickup.
“We’re leaving,” Fousek says they told him. “This guy’s not paying us anymore. He’s a deadbeat.”
Fousek says he volunteered to help them pack.
At that point, the Pratis thought they’d had poor work done expensively. But until their lawyer subpoenaed Franklin Construction’s bank records, the Pratis didn’t really understand the extent to which they had been duped.
Using bank records and vehicle title searches, the Pratis, in their civil case against Franklin, determine that he purchased 17 motorized vehicles with their cash, including a new Hummer, three snowmobiles, a new Ford truck, a motorcycle, a dirt bike and a boat. Bank records also indicate he paid cable bills, gas bills, electric bills and other utilities and spent thousands at building supply stores in Colorado, where, they say, he and his wife, Angela Franklin, happened to be building their own new home. He put $10,000 down on five acres in Kila. He bought more than $20,000 in new tools and took out more than $350,000 in cash. The suit alleges Franklin spent more than $800,000 on non-construction items.
“It’s flat incredible,” says Fousek, who used his expertise as a building contractor to help the Pratis go through the bank records to determine which expenses were legitimate.
Having sold their Littleton home to help fund construction in Whitefish, Richard’s family was now living in a rental in Colorado. His Montana home itself was heavily mortgaged, and remained unfinished. Retirement was a long way off. It almost seemed that all those hours that Richard had worked reaching for his dream had been worked for Brad Franklin.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous”
On Aug. 2, 2005, the Pratis filed a civil suit against Franklin, alleging he had stolen more than $1 million from them. About one month later Gary Solomon filed suit as well.
Franklin was not jailed, but a restraining order was issued barring him from selling or transferring any property or possessions related to the Pratis’ case. But vehicle title records and testimony in court files allege he transferred ownership of his home in Colorado to his wife, attempted to sell his land in Kila, and was apparently selling off the motorized vehicles. Franklin soon started missing appointments for depositions and hearings, according to Peter Leander, the Pratis’ lawyer, and in early January, after Franklin missed a contempt hearing for his alleged violation of the restraining order, Flathead County Sheriff’s officers couldn’t locate Franklin. He disappeared with what the Pratis believe is a pile of cash made by selling possessions he purchased with their money. Default judgments were issued in both the Prati and Solomon cases. The Pratis were awarded more than $3 million, Solomon $371,000.
But the Pratis are pessimistic about ever recovering their losses.
“I’ll never get the money back,” Richard says. His hope now is that Franklin will at least spend time in jail.
It looked like he might get his wish on Feb. 23, when Flathead County filed felony theft charges against Franklin, issued a warrant for his arrest, and set his bail at $30,000. Those charges were related to $24,000 Franklin allegedly stole from Solomon.
Deputy County Attorney Lori Adams did not return calls regarding the Prati case.
Part of the problem, says the Flathead Building Association’s Katie Chamberlain, is that Montana contractors are not required to be licensed by the state. Such a program would require contractors to take a test and obtain a license, which could be revoked for unethical behavior. Chamberlain says that in the past, bills to require licensing have failed in the state Legislature.
Contractors are required to register with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, but that’s just a matter of paying a fee.
Chamberlain says that in the near future, the Montana Building Industry Association may require all new members in Montana to take a test similar to what would be required for licensure, with existing members grandfathered in.
But lawyer Chad Wold has his doubts about licensure, at least as the sole tool to protect consumers from contractor fraud.
“You take their license away. Big deal,” he says, noting that it won’t help homeowners to get their money back.
Requiring insurance and bonding, as many other states do, is the only way to protect homeowners.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous that it’s not required,” he says.
Until more stringent requirements are imposed on building contractors, Chamberlain says, consumers should insist on getting a contract, have it reviewed by a lawyer, make sure their builder is registered with the state and check their references.
And, she says, they should keep in mind an old saying: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
According to Richard, when Franklin disappeared, he left a lot of the finish work, the work he was supposed to be saving the Pratis money on, unfinished. Richard says Franklin also left a pile of bills for the driveway paving, heating and air conditioning work, masonry, and invoices from several suppliers, that were supposed to have been paid from the money the Pratis provided. In the end, the Pratis paid those contractors directly.
The house, Richard says, is nearly finished, but there are still problems.
The cabinets, which were supposed to have been made of hardwood, are plywood instead. Many of the drawers, beneath expensive slabs of granite countertop, are mounted on wobbly tracks and don’t close correctly.
Worse for the Pratis, they had to sell their house in Colorado and mortgage their Montana home to finish work on it. Richard is still working 80-hour weeks, and retirement looks to be a long way off.
“It’s more than just the money,” Sheri says. “He took away our time with our kids. That’s a hard pill for them to swallow.”
At this point, Richard says, he’s considering selling his dream home and scaling down a bit.
“It’s changed my life,” he says. And it’s changed his mind, too.
“I trusted somebody,” he says. “It was a big mistake.”
Where Franklin has disappeared to is the subject of rumors. Robertson says he suspects Franklin returned to Colorado, but admits he heard the same rumor the Pratis did, that Franklin had been talking about setting up shop in Louisiana or Mississippi, to build for victims of Hurricane Katrina.