BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A Baton Rouge homeowner who is trying to rebuild after the August flood is now fighting to keep her insurance money from landing in the wrong hands. 9News Investigator Cheryl Mercedes found out a contractor who has been in trouble with the law may have found a way to skirt the system.
As Tequila Aucoin talks about her Baton Rouge home, it is easy to understand why she chose it. "A double vanity was here, and that was the bathroom," Aucoin said.
Her family's first home, she said, had it all. After the historic flood in August, she had to come to grips with losing everything inside. "The table was on top of the refrigerators. Things were everywhere. There were things in here and in the yard that didn't even belong to me. It's just a complete a disaster," Aucoin said.
The Aucoins have flood insurance. While getting a few estimates from contractors to do the repairs, she said she met a man named Tanweer Bhatti.
"I found out about Tanweer from my neighbor. He told me that's who he had been dealing with. So I was like okay, I'm ready to get this process started," Aucoin said.
Aucoin said her insurance agreed to cover $120,000 in repairs. She said Bhatti told her since the work exceeded $75,000, which is the limit for a contractor who does not hold a license with the state, Aucoin would have to sign two contracts. She said she signed one with Southern Remodelers and Kitchens for $75,000, the other with Radiant Home Improvement for $45,000.
According to the documents, the companies agreed to gut, clean, rewire the house, and order and install all materials, including floors and cabinets. Neither company has been paid any money by Aucoin or her insurance. Aucoin said after the papers were signed, Bhatti did not personally show up again.
"All he was doing, to my knowledge, was sending his people to do everything," Aucoin said.
Aucoin said the crews ripped out a wall in October and started stripping the floors, but then the work stopped. She said when she started asking questions, she got no answers. "We are working with Tan. Contact Tan. Tan said this. Tan said that," Aucoin said.
Aucoin said she got so frustrated, she fired him. A month later, she got an invoice from Southern Remodelers in the amount of $16,500. According to the bill, that covered a gut out, dry out, mold treatment, and electrical work.
"You only did one wall, but you want to get paid the full price," Aucoin said.
Just when she thought things could not get any worse, five days later, Aucoin got a letter from an attorney representing Southern Remodelers. It directs her to pay the $16,500 by November 21, or a lien would be put on her home.
"That's unbelievable. Like, there is no way you did $16,500 worth of work in here," Aucoin said.
Aucoin was even more shocked to find that in the last year, Bhatti had been arrested twice in Baker for allegedly swindling tens of thousands of dollars from elderly homeowners.
"I'm being harassed, man. That's all I have to say," Bhatti said as he was brought to jail.
The 9News Investigators found Bhatti has a stack of complaints against him dating back to 2009. According to the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors, Bhatti's license was revoked in 2013 and he has been cited for several violations. The 9News Investigators also learned that in 2009, he was fined after the board found him guilty of working without home improvement registrations. Two years later, he was fined again for doing home improvement work over the amount of $75,000 without having a license.
Compliance administrative director for the Licensing Board, LeAnn Evans, pointed out that Bhatti has paid $27,000 in fines and has an outstanding balance of $18,410.
"How is it that Mr. Bhatti is allowed to continue working in people's homes when his license has been revoked," reporter Cheryl Mercedes asked.
"If Mr. Bhatti is a W2 employee of another construction company, by law, he can do that," Evans said.
"Is there anything the board can do to stop him," Mercedes asked.
"We have referred Mr. Bhatti's cases to the Attorney General's Office. Unfortunately, the state contractors licensing board does not have the authority to pursue any criminal charges," Evans said.
Still, Aucoin wants answers from the owners of the two companies she said Bhatti is working for. "You hired him. He's working for you," Aucoin said.
The 9News Investigators went first to the address listed for Southern Remodelers. It took us to a condo with a For Sale sign in the window. According to the Louisiana Secretary of State's website, a man named Hassan Akbar is the owner. The woman who answered the door said Akbar was not home. We went next to the address listed for Radiant Home Improvement. It was a house in a Baton Rouge subdivision. The woman who answered that door said the owner was not home.
When we didn't find Bhatti there, we went to his house, but no one answered. Less than 30 minutes later, his attorney Seth Dornier, called 9News and agreed to an interview. "Mr. Bhatti has nothing to hide," Dornier said.
The attorney explained Bhatti is a 60 percent shareholder in Radiant Home Improvement, but has no connection to Southern Remodelers as Aucoin claims.
"We would fervently deny that he has attempted to juxtapose or in any way intermingle two separate and distinct entities in order to do one job," Dornier said.
As for Aucoin's dealings with Bhatti and Radiant Home Improvements, Dornier said his client is willing to cooperate. "She's asking for a simple breakdown for the work done and what she's being charged for. Is that too much to ask," reporter Cheryl Mercedes asked.
"I don't believe it is. I can get Mr. Bhatti to provide that to her," Dornier said.
However, Dornier stressed his client has done nothing wrong. "Mr. Bhatti is innocent. He's absolutely innocent of every allegation that's ever been brought against him. It will be proven in a court of law that not only is he not guilty, but absolutely innocent," Dornier said.
In the meantime, the Aucoins have begun repairing their house on their own. "A lot of work is left. It's going to be a process, a very long process," Aucoin said.
Bhatti is set to go before the Contractors Board in January regarding Aucoin's complaints. He is also expected in court on Wednesday, December 21 in St. John the Baptist Parish, where he is charged with home improvement fraud.