More than a year before authorities across the Baton Rouge area accused contractor Matthew Morris of defrauding over two dozen clients with homes ruined by the August flood, Donna and Doug Cox filed a 92-page complaint with the state Attorney General's office decrying his company's practices.

The Coxes are one of three families who say they complained about Morris and his company, Complete Construction Contractors, either to the Attorney General’s office or the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors — and sometimes both agencies — before the summer flood. None felt the state agencies took their complaints seriously.

In April 2015, the Coxes paid $13,183 up front in a $66,000 contract for the construction company to build them a new backyard cabana. But after four failed inspections, the relationship with Morris soured.

The Coxes wanted out of the contract, believing Morris had not done enough work to warrant what had been paid, even as he claimed he was owed another $26,000 just to finish the cabana’s slab. His response was to put a lien on their property. 

The Coxes filed their complaint with the Attorney General's office in July 2015 and another with the contractors board about the same time, but eventually sued months later.

“You know they kept saying that 'You have to get an attorney involved. We have to stay out of it,’” Donna Cox, 57, recalled about the AG response. “And I’m like, ‘No, you don’t understand. I know there’s a couple of complaints already, and I know he’s not going to stop until y’all stop him.’”

Six months after the flood, complaints about Morris have racked up. Starting in early February, six law enforcement agencies have accused Morris of starting home and business restoration work and then seeking exorbitant cost increases that aren’t justified by the completed work.

Morris, who is being held without bail, has maintained he is "100 percent innocent" of the criminal charges against him, and in civil court papers accused the Coxes of owing him tens of thousands in unpaid bills and fees.

Morris' attorney, Travis Turner, has declined to comment, while Morris’ civil attorneys in New Orleans have not returned calls.

Dispute or fraud?

In Louisiana, the Attorney General’s office and the state contractors board are designated as agencies that are supposed to protect consumers and police contractors.

The Attorney General's office has a consumer protection section and a fraud hotline, and routinely issues warnings to consumers about how they can avoid falling prey to scammers. “I will do all that I can to root out fraud and scams in our State,” Attorney General Jeff Landry says in a flier on contractor fraud.

But by their own admission, both the contractors board and the Attorney General’s office are sometimes reluctant to become involved in private contract disputes over subjective standards of whether a contractor has done an adequate job.

Baton Rouge lawyer Kevin Landreneau — who handles civil contracting disputes and, though he represents primarily contractors, has also represented contractors’ clients — said that subjectivity can extend to the quality of workmanship, the length of the job, when different phases of a job are finished and require payment, and even the finest details of a job.

"Typically, the matter does not turn criminal until there is clear proof of a scheme or intent to defraud the owner by the contractor," Landreneau said.

A contractor board official says it focuses on licensing issues, such as whether a contractor has insurance, has passed a licensing exam, has basic financial backing and uses licensed subcontractors.

The board is not designed to be the arbitrator of quality and workmanship issues or of the validity of any contracts, said Brad Hassert, the compliance director.

“Every complainant is advised of that when the complaint is filed. They are advised that the board cannot ensure that any monies are refunded to them, that any work will be done or redone,” he said.

Hassert said the board has received several complaints about Complete Construction, but the nature of the disputes, including a contract that purports to give Morris a powerful hand with his clients, has made it hard for the board to act.

Still, the board suspended all licenses it had issued to Morris and Complete Construction in February after he was arrested by multiple local law enforcement agencies. The board has refused to make the notice of suspension public, but Hassert said the board’s investigation centers on allegations that mold remediation work performed by the company was done without a license.

The Attorney General’s office says it can lead consumer protection cases with multiple victims, but they are civil cases. The office also investigates — but does not prosecute — criminal contractor fraud cases. Local prosecutors decide whether to bring charges, agency officials said.

The Attorney General’s office also avoids private civil disputes in contracting, especially once lawsuits are filed.

“In many cases, the evidence does not establish the intent to defraud; it establishes a disagreement of the parties and a breach of contract,” said Ruth Wisher, a Landry spokeswoman.

She said the office can't take up those kinds of cases, which "are private matters between private parties who have contracted with each other.”

Wisher said she could not say how many complaints the AG's office has received or has investigated about Morris and Complete Construction.

Wisher did say that the Coxes spoke with office personnel, but pointed to lawsuit they filed over the dispute. But the Coxes said they filed a complaint with the office nearly seven months before they filed a lawsuit in February 2016.

An investigator closed the Coxes’ complaint to the contractors board with no action, Hassert added.

119 counts and growing

Ascension Parish kicked off the criminal investigation accusing Morris of fraud. Ascension sheriff’s deputies arrested Morris Feb. 8 on dozens of fraud and other counts stemming from new post-flood complaints in that parish.

Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said his office investigated its cases independently at first and did not seek out help from the Attorney General's office until deputies needed the agency to develop search warrants for Morris' business and home, which are both in neighboring East Baton Rouge Parish.

Developing the cases, which was done in cooperation with Twenty-Third Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin's office, required a great deal of research to work through Morris' records, Wiley said. 

"Because you guard against looking at these things and stacks of flies, and your first reaction is that's lawyers suing lawyers," Wiley said. "Somebody's got to sue somebody, and you know the length of time that takes, so we felt like all along we had a crime and so did our district attorney and frankly the judges who signed the arrest warrants."

Since the Ascension Parish arrest, law enforcement in Livingston and more recently East Baton Rouge have begun investigating Morris cases in their parishes.

As of Monday, Morris, 39, has been arrested on 119 counts of contractor fraud, insurance fraud and other counts involving 26 victims in Ascension and Livingston parishes and in Baton Rouge, Walker and Denham Springs. The investigations are continuing. Almost all of the cases are for post-flood construction work, although at least one arrest in Baton Rouge involved a contract from 2014. 

A familiar pattern has emerged in many cases, according to warrants in Ascension and East Baton Rouge parishes and Complete Construction’s contracts.

Complete Construction often signed customers to contracts with a maximum value of $750,000, according to the documents, but rarely provided an estimate for the job, Ascension sheriff’s deputies said.

Instead, Morris would collect the insurance deductible plus the first insurance payments that would normally have gone to the homeowner, said Harold Dorsey, of St. Amant, who has had counts filed against Morris on his behalf.

According to many of the contracts, Morris often obtained the authority to deal directly with homeowners’ insurers. After the customers' out-of-pocket money was in hand, authorities allege that Complete Construction would begin demolition but stop once early steps were finished, then seek inflated costs for reconstruction.

“He told us he was upside down on our house. ‘We need money, you know, the rest of the insurance,' before he could do anything else,” said Dorsey, 48, a truck driver.

Ascension deputies said some victims later learned about two-thirds of their insurance payout had been spent on demolition and restoration, like mold remediation, and not enough was left to rebuild their houses.

A case in Walker followed a similar pattern, except Morris quoted an initial price of $70,000 only to pressure the victim for a total bill of $244,500 to finish the job or face a lien, according to Walker police. Morris faces a count of extortion over the threat, police have said.

Liens are documents that can be legally attached to homes and land to ensure that when bills are outstanding, they get paid before the property is sold. But, in the case of several of Morris' alleged victims, the liens also had the effect of halting their insurance payments, Ascension deputies said.    

Courtney Stricklin, who processed information for Complete Construction from mid-August to early September, said she handled around 70 contracts.

"That is something that when we talked to clients to give them information before they sign contracts, one of the first questions Matt wanted us to ask was, ‘What's your max policy,’ like what's the max on your policy," Stricklin said.

As the bill rose and enough progress wasn’t happening on a gutted home or business, customers balked, Dorsey and other homeowners said. They were then hit with termination fees and costs spelled out in the contracts. Liens on the damaged property often followed, tying up further progress, according to Ascension deputies.

Stricklin, who said she left Complete Construction because of the hours and her concerns about the business, also hired Morris to repair her flooded house.

She sued Morris over a lien he placed on her Denham Springs house after she refused to pay him for work she claimed his company never completed. 

Before a hearing Monday in Livingston Parish, Morris voluntarily removed Stricklin’s lien. A final judgement is pending.

Morris also played on his Christianity and his ties to area churches to land business, several people said.

Christie Andry, whose business This Olde Shoppe on Tiger Bend Road flooded in August, said she got Morris’ name through her daughter and son-in-law, who were in Bible study with him at Healing Place Church.

Andry said when she signed with Complete Construction, Morris gave her a gift basket with a Jesus calling book, a kind of daily prayer devotional.

“It’s disgusting. Boy, I tell you what, it burns me up when people claim to be a Christian and do this. That makes it even worse,” said Andry, who lives in Covington.

Andry said Complete Construction, which stopped working on her shop in late September, destroyed the business' floors. She said she complained to the contractors board and the Attorney General’s Office later that fall. She said she thought the Attorney General’s office, which initially appeared interested, would pursue her case, though the agency ended up not taking it.

“I really thought they were going to do something with it. Then all of a sudden their tune kind of changed. They just were, ‘Well, you signed the contract,’” said Andry, who she said she is now speaking with East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies.

Wisher, the Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman, said the agency spoke with Andry.

“We cannot prevent people from signing bad contracts or breaching those contracts,” Wisher said.

Hassert said Andry’s complaint to the contractors board is part of its investigation into Morris.

Ascension Parish Sheriff Wiley said Mark Stermer, The Church in St. Amant’s pastor, came to him with concerns Morris may be victimizing some parishioners and "using the credibility of the church and his relationship with the pastor to curry business.”

Wiley said that Stermer told him that he had addressed his concerns with Morris, who stopped using the church's name.

Officials with Healing Place Church and The Church in St. Amant have declined to comment.

Pre-flood complaints

Cody and Krystal Haydel hired Complete Construction in June 2014 to plan construction of a new home in Gonzales, said Daniel Atkinson Jr., the couple's attorney. The Haydels later sued, claiming Morris and his company charged them for work that was never done.

Morris, in a lawsuit he filed against the Haydels, countered he did much of the early work, but the couple hired another contractor and won’t pay Morris for the work he completed. When they refused to pay him, Morris responded by filing a lien against them.

Shortly before September 2015, when the Haydels sued to dispute the lien, they filed an online complaint with the contractor board. Atkinson said the Haydels never received a response.

Atkinson, who convinced a judge to remove Complete Construction’s lien May 6 and was awarded attorney’s fees and costs, said he wasn’t surprised.

“I have found in my practice that the Board exercises very little oversight of licensed contractors,” Atkinson said.

Hassert, the contractors board compliance director, said the board has no record of a complaint from the Haydels or their attorney.

Clayton Lester, the former president of the Old Goodwood Landing Condominium Homeowners Association, said he filed an AG complaint in early August. Morris had been hired to repair a four-unit condo in Old Goodwood Landing off Lobdell Road that burned April 5, 2015. The association and its insurer spent more than $542,000 on Complete Construction’s repairs, Lester said.

The building has been gutted and cleaned, and part of its brick façade was removed, but the brick has not been replaced, Lester said. The building is also without a new roof and is on its fourth or fifth tattered blue tarp, he said.

Complete Construction wants another $400,000 to finish a job that the association’s insurer had valued at $650,000.

“This makes no sense to me,” Lester said of the Attorney General’s office inaction, “when I know there is a guy out there doing stuff and conducting business in a manner in which he takes from everybody and does not give equivalent value and, in fact, takes stuff and does not offer value at all. That’s not right.”

The Attorney General’s office informed Lester in October that it would not get involved because Morris had been subpoenaed in related litigation, Lester said. One of the condo owners had sued the association over the lack of progress on the units.

Donna Cox filed her AG compliant with former Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. Once Landry was elected attorney general in late 2015, she said, Cox figured then it may have then gotten postponed with the coming change of administration. But they eventually got word from the Landry administration that the office wouldn't take up the case.

In the Coxes’ 2015 complaint to the AG, they detailed their dispute with Morris but also questioned the validity of claims on his website. Those claims included that Complete Construction could do restoration from fire, flood and mold and had out-of-state offices.

Recent calls to those offices went to the same voice mail or to the Baton Rouge office on Perkins Road. The same person repeatedly answered calls to those numbers last week and said Complete Construction only has a corporate office in Baton Rouge.

Morris has voluntarily dropped his lien against the Coxes, but litigation with them continues.

“It’s sad. It’s really sad. It’s bad,” said Donna Cox, who said she too was won over by Morris' name-dropping of church members. “I don’t know why the Attorney General’s office didn’t listen to me.” 

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.