In what is being dubbed by labor investigators as the largest construction scam in Montana in years, one man has been accused of bilking dozens of homeowners and former employees out of untold thousands of dollars while leaving homes without roofs in the middle of winter.
John Mulinski, who is facing 15 felonies in Washington for similar accusations, has been described in numerous interviews with labor investigators, ex-employees and homeowners as a smooth-talking conman who is able procure significant sums of money up front and then take off without finishing the work.
“As far as it being spread out geographically and the number of complaints, this is the biggest case I’ve run across in Montana,” said Matt Paszek, an investigator with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
The labor department began investigating Mulinski last fall in response to complaints from homeowners and ex-employees in the Flathead Valley. As the case increased in scope and moved across the state, the labor department added another investigator.
Paszek said he expected the months-long investigation to wrap up this week. Information will then be turned over to the state Attorney General’s office and local county attorneys, who will decide if criminal charges are forthcoming. A call to Mulinski for this story was not returned.
The state has already suspended Mulinski’s contractor’s registration and he is not supposed to be performing work in Montana, Paszek said. Mulinski has a telephone conference with the labor department on Jan. 28 to set a date for an appeal hearing. He operates under the business name Sunrise Quality Construction and Quality Construction.
“Keep a look out for him – his registration is suspended and he is not allowed to be working in Montana,” Paszek said. “If he gets caught right now, he’s in big trouble.”
Mulinski, who has also worked in Oregon and California, is awaiting trial in Washington for 15 felonies for allegedly scamming property owners and subcontractors out of about $1 million. According to a King County Superior Court clerk, Mulinski posted $25,000 bond and has a trial scheduled for May 3. The clerk said Mulinski has hired one of the most high-priced attorneys in Seattle, Tony Savage.
The Beacon published a story in November about Mulinski’s business, Sunrise Quality Construction and the labor department’s investigation. At the time, he appeared to be operating mostly in the Flathead. Since then, Paszek said Mulinski’s activity fell off in the Flathead but increased elsewhere, mostly in the Great Falls area.
Max Jackson was one of multiple homeowners in the Great Falls area to respond to Mulinski’s newspaper and phonebook advertisements. Jackson said the ad said Mulinski was “licensed, bonded and insured.” Jackson said he made several requests to see Mulinski’s credentials without success.
Jackson said Mulinski began bypassing him and going straight to his insurance company where he was able to obtain money. Another cause for concern, Jackson said, was Mulinski’s insistence that his best crew was on the job when the employees said they had never worked for him before.
“It seemed strange to me that he would say, ‘This is my top team,’” Jackson said. “Then he would promise this and that on certain days, but never do it.”
In the end, Jackson found out more about Mulinski through online news accounts, but not before a “lot of stuff got ripped off the house and nothing put on.” Between himself and the insurance company, Jackson said a total of $30,000 was paid to Mulinski.
“He continued to ask for money and stopped coming (to the job site),” Jackson said. “He went to the insurance company and sent e-mails, but I already knew his game.”
For six weeks, Jackson didn’t have a roof over his head, only a tarp. The attic and insulation suffered extensive weather damage. Jackson said it cost another $29,000 to “fix all Mulinski’s stuff” and put a new roof up, a job completed only last week. The whole ordeal began before Thanksgiving and he said he still has to pay for water damage.
“It was pretty miserable at the house for awhile,” Jackson said.
Jackson filed complaints with the state Office of Consumer Protection, the Great Falls police and the labor department.
“I have to wait to see what happens,” Jackson said. “The wheels of justice move slow, but they do move. I’m sure he’ll get his day in court.”
Interviews describe a pattern in which Mulinski failed to pay for advertisements just as he failed to pay employees for ongoing work that ultimately was never finished. Roofs were torn off across the state and abandoned, with Mulinski either disappearing or repeatedly reassuring that he would eventually pay and finish the job, according to multiple accounts from ex-employees and homeowners.
News accounts and court documents from other states describe similar complaints throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“It blows my mind that he could have done this in three other states,” said Rick Hickman, a Bozeman-based contractor. “What’s it going to take to stop him?”
Hickman answered an advertisement from Mulinski seeking help for jobs in Great Falls. Hickman and his crew of three signed on and ended up working on Jackson’s house, among other projects. Like others interviewed, Hickman said Mulinski has a charm that makes him believable.
“I thought he was legit, but everybody’s right: He’s a slick talker,” Hickman said. “I’ve been in this business 30 years and I’ve worked for a ton of companies. I have references all over the state. I’ve never seen anybody operate like him.”
Hickman filed a complaint with the state after a series of red flags went up, not the least of which was Mulinski’s failure to pay: “He never paid us an dime – me and three other guys.” Hickman said he discovered that Mulinski had at least six different phone numbers.
As Hickman continued trying to retrieve his money, his suspicion grew. He sent somebody to check on the two addresses given for Mulinski’s businesses and found empty lots, which is a trend echoed by others interviewed.
At another address in Great Falls, Hickman said he found a mostly abandoned house and a somewhat ominous scene. All that was inside was a single easy chair surrounded by two milk crates and a telephone.
“The very next morning I went to people telling them to watch out and put a stop payment on his checks,” Hickman said.
Charlie Kolar joined Paszek’s investigation after it grew too large. Kolar, who handled most of the Cascade County cases, said Mulinski would complete some jobs so he would have good local references. A homeowner in Laurel was pleased with Mulinski’s work, Kolar said.
“He’s a non-confrontational type of fellow,” Kolar said. “If you confront him about a nonpayment, he says, ‘yeah I’ll pay it,’ and he doesn’t do anything. He’s very pleasant. He’ll say, ‘Sorry, I was gone hunting and forgot to do that, but I will.’”
Kolar added: “He’s picking spots and hopping around the state. About everybody he touches, he hurts.”
Kolar has seen no evidence that Mulinski has been operating recently.
“When he got down here his reputation might have preceded him,” Kolar said. “He had a little trouble getting jobs and workers. I’m kind of hoping he’s run his course.”
The labor department asks people to report any dealings with Mulinski. The department can be reached at (406) 444-2840 and found online at http://dli.mt.gov.
“I’ve never seen a case like this before,” Kolar said. “I guess I would have to give him credit for his organizational skills. I wouldn’t be able to get it all done like he does, stringing all these people along. He’s got to have a good system to keep him going.”
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