Tulare contractors plead no contest in major Tubbs fire fraud
Nearly three years after being accused of scamming victims of the 2017 Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, the owners of a shuttered Central Valley construction company have been convicted in one of the biggest fraud cases tied to post-wildfire rebuilding in Sonoma County.
The case against husband and wife Salvador and Pamela Chiaramonte, owners of Tulare-based Chiaramonte Construction & Plumbing, came to a head Friday when they pleaded no contest to multiple felonies in Sonoma County Superior Court.
Amy Diane Perry, their daughter, also was a defendant and pleaded no contest.
The conviction of Sal Chiaramonte involves 13 counts of diverting funds of at least $1,000 and one count of theft from an elder or dependent adult, according to court records. Pamela Chiaramonte and Perry each pleaded no contest to one count of diversion of funds.
Their pleas apply to a fraction of the 59 counts, ranging from diversion of construction funds to grand theft of personal property, each family member originally faced.
An April 22 preliminary hearing would have determined if the family would stand trial but it was canceled in the wake of their pleas.
All three are scheduled to be sentenced on July 14.
Their attorney, Ken Rosenfeld, did not return a call for comment Monday afternoon.
In May 2019, Chiaramonte Construction became the first contractor to be accused by Tubbs fire survivors of negligence and fraud during the massive rebuild in sections of Santa Rosa ravaged by the historic 2017 inferno, which destroyed 4,600 homes and caused the deaths of 22 people.
Residents who hired the company to rebuild their homes said they took money for work that was shoddily performed or not done at all, The Press Democrat first reported in 2019. The clients alleged missed deadlines, broken promises on construction start dates and seeing their rebuilds drag on and on, with no progress.
The conviction of the Chiaramontes doesn’t bring the major fraud case to a close just yet. More than a dozen of the Chiaramontes’ former clients have sued them in civil court.
In 2019, the Contractors State License Board launched an investigation into Chiaramonte Construction and later suspended its license for failure to maintain workers’ compensation coverage.
The construction company was dissolved and in April 2020 the Chiaramontes’ filed for personal bankruptcy protection from creditors.
Criminal charges were filed against them in July 2020.
Prosecutors say the defendants had signed roughly 40 construction contracts following the Tubbs fire and a criminal complaint references 16 victims.
Half of those homeowners were over the age of 65, leading to additional charges of elder abuse, or “theft, embezzlement, forgery, fraud, and identity theft with respect to the property and personal identifying information of an elder and dependent adult,” according to the complaint.
Grand theft charges covered more than $1 million in losses, but the criminal complaint was less specific about the counts referring to diversion of funds and indicates each of those offenses was at least $2,350.
One of the victims was D.M. Kelley, who lost his house in Coffey Park. After the fire he was looking for a contractor, “like everybody else in town.”
At the suggestion of a neighbor, he took a meeting with Sal Chiaramonte, who repeatedly mentioned his Christian values, recalled Kelley.
Chiaramonte told prospective clients that the company would be importing less-expensive laborers from the Central Valley, and would pass those savings on to customers.
In the end, Kelley, who spoke to The Press Democrat on Monday, said Chiaramonte took over $100,000 from him and did next to nothing in return. “And we were one of the lucky ones,” Kelley added.
After a long period during which he was unable to get calls and emails returned, Kelley was able to get Sal Chiaramonte on the phone in the spring of 2019.
“I said, ‘Hey, we’d like our money back so we can go on with rebuilding our house.’”
Chiaramonte, he recalled, told Kelley he’d love to pay him back, but because so many of his Sonoma County customers hadn’t paid him, or weren’t paying, that would be impossible.
“He never said he was sorry,” Kelley said, of Chiaramonte. “He just talked about his kids being out of work and how he was going to do everything he could to save his own house.
“I said, ‘What about us? We have no houses!”
Kelley said the way it was explained to him by a representative of the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, following his no contest pleas Sal Chiaramonte is looking at a six-year jail term, “split into three years in custody, three on probation.
“The way the court works, he could only serve 18 months of both” — meaning 18 months in prison, 18 months probation.
That feels far too lenient to Kelley, and to other Chiaramonte victims he’s spoken with. “We don’t think it’s a long enough,” he said, “especially if [Sal] only has to serve 18 months.”
Asked if he expected restitution, Kelley replied, “They don’t have any money. You’ve got to be realistic. How are you going to get money out of a rock?”
Rich Freeman, the Santa Rosa-based attorney representing 14 Chiaramonte victims in an ongoing civil suit, believes his clients will share that sentiment.
“A lot of them are still very emotionally raw,” he said. “There’s virtually nothing that would make it better, in their minds. The horror of what they went through, losing everything in the fires, the emotional trauma of that, coupled with battling with their insurance companies to find out what their coverage was, only to have this guy run off with or squander their money and leave them scrambling — there’s almost nothing that could make them whole again.”
Some of those Chiaramonte clients haven’t been able to rebuild at all, he added, “and those that have, have been strapped getting it done.”
“They’ve been through a lot of agony and gotten nothing in return.”
Jacqueline Scott turned to Chiaramonte after her Larkfield home was razed by the Tubbs fire.
“I am glad that the Chiaramontes will finally have their day in court to face their victims,” she said. “But I find it disappointing that each victim faced longer extended build times — if their homes were built at all — than the jail time that the Chiaramontes face.”
You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at email@example.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi.
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ausmurph88.