The president of a now-defunct Florida pool company was sentenced, but will not have to serve jail time, for collecting money from customers without completing their pools.
Keith Stuart of Nationwide Pools in Pompano Beach pleaded no contest to grand theft and was sentenced to 30 months’ probation, 500 hours of community service and restitution of $8,000 to one of the two customers represented in the proceedings, which took place in Martin County.
Local media outlets had reported that Stuart pleaded guilty and that the sentencing named $30,000 in restitution. However, an official with Martin County said approximately $22,000 of the restitution had already been resolved before the plea. Additionally, Stuart’s attorney said the plea was “no contest.”
Nationwide made prominent headlines in the region last year when its offices closed, with dozens of customers saying their pools had been left unfinished.
The company had an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau, and 54 complaints had been filed. Many homeowners wrote negative posts online, and one even launched a website dedicated to problems with the builder. Nationwide’s membership in the Florida Swimming Pool Association was revoked.
Government investigations resulted in several charges, though it was only Martin County that took the matter to criminal court to represent two of its residents.
The judge chose to withhold adjudication, which means Stuart’s record will not show a conviction. It’s a common practice for first offenders, according to Erin Kirkwood, an assistant state attorney in Martin County.
While this might increase his chances of building pools again, his attorney doubts that’s a concern. “If he chooses to be in [the pool] industry, I think it certainly helps that he was not convicted,” said Guy Fronstin, based in Boca Raton, Fla. “I think a conviction would preclude him from being able to work as a contractor in the pool industry. But I know he doesn’t have any interest or intention right now of being in that industry. …”
Fronstin said both parties have received their restitution funds.
The attorney maintained that the failures of Stuart’s company sprang from poor business practices rather than malice. “It just got to a point where he ran out of money,” Fronstin said. “That’s a civil issue, not a criminal issue.”
The prosecutors had hoped Stuart would receive a five-year prison sentence, which Fronstin said was misplaced.
“It was an example of an overzealous prosecutor who didn’t take the time to really look at the evidence when they made the decision to make it a criminal case,” he said.
“Once the defense team [was] able to organize all the information and present it to the prosecutor, it became pretty clear that our client had done everything possible to keep this business afloat and to fund the company out of his own pocket … including cashing in IRAs and having to pay huge tax bills on it.”
With the criminal proceedings complete, civil suits are still in progress against Nationwide Pools and a related firm, as well as Stuart and other key employees.
In June 2013, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a civil suit against Nationwide and Stuart, as well as his wife Lynn, who served as vice president, secretary and treasurer; and Felicia Mallia, finance and operations manager.
Later, Bondi’s office contended that Stuart intentionally bankrupted his own company to avoid creditors, then transferred Nationwide funds to another company, Kings Highway General Contracting Inc., in order to continue with the same deceptive practices.
The second company, which did business as National Construction Group, was added to the suit, as was its president, Terry Lynn Edwards.
While Fronstin is not representing Stuart in the civil cases, he denied that Stuart started National Construction Group, saying instead that he worked for the company.
“He became an employee of another company, but it was not his company,” Fronstin said. “That was also misreported in the media.”
They were accused of deceptive acts and practices, failing to complete pool construction, not paying subcontractors and working under a different name after Nationwide’s license was revoked. A court order was issued to freeze the assets of the second company, National Construction Group, and enjoined the individual defendants from performing pool construction or remodeling.
In June, Nationwide and Kings Highway were found guilty and await a trial to determine the penalties. No date has currently been set.
In addition to any restitution, the parties face up to $10,000 in penalties for each violation, and $15,000 for violations against senior citizens or disabled people.
The litigation concerning the companies has progressed further than the lawsuits against the individuals involved. Those suits are still pending.
Fronstin said Stuart has had to use all his financial resources for restitution and to defend against his criminal charges and avoid prison time. So he has been defending himself in the civil proceedings.