Criminal Checks Rare for Contractors

Elizabeth Smart's father had no idea the man he hired as a contractor last year, Richard Albert Ricci, was a career criminal with a record that included burglary and attempted murder.

Ed Smart never would have hired Ricci had he known of the handyman's criminal past, the father of the missing 14-year-old girl has said.

But a quick glance at laws around the country show there are few guarantees that home contractors have a clean past, since most states that license them don’t require criminal background checks.

Had Utah run such a check on Ricci, they would have likely found a forest of red flags. Beginning with a burglary conviction in 1973, Ricci had been in and out of jail for 29 years, freed on parole most recently in 2000. Among his convictions: aggravated robbery, attempted homicide and a prison escape.

Ricci was charged last Thursday with one count of burglary and one count of theft for allegedly stealing $3,500 worth of items from the Smart home last June. He faces another count of theft for allegedly taking items from the home of a Smart neighbor, where he also worked as a handyman.

Utah requires anyone doing construction work in the state, including electricians and plumbers, to get a license from the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing. To qualify for a license, a contractor has to provide proof of insurance, register with the state tax commission and a bevy of state employment divisions, and provide a financial statement and three credit reports for each key employee.

The focus is on standards of professional experience, not on a contractor’s criminal history.

It’s much the same in Alabama, where any general contractor working on a residential project of $10,000 or more must be licensed. Though a potential licensee goes through the usual gamut of questions about his work history, and though the state takes a hard stance on scam artists trying to rip off unsuspecting homeowners, a criminal background check just doesn’t figure into the process.

"We ask them if they’ve been convicted of any crime associated with the construction business, and if we find out they’ve lied, we deny or revoke the license," said Chip Carden, executive director of the Alabama Home Licensure Board. "If they broke a law that doesn’t involve the construction business, there’s not a whole lot the board does about it."

Some states don’t even go that far. In Illinois, for example, most construction contractors, except for roofing workers, don’t need to be licensed at all. In New York, only asbestos-abatement contractors are licensed at the state level. All others are regulated locally.

Steve Schmidt, executive director of the National Association of State Contractor Licensing Agencies, in Scottsdale, Ariz., admitted it’s easy for an ex-con to slip through the cracks of states’ regulatory agencies.

"Many states are going to be asking, 'Are you convicted of a felony or have you have a license revoked in other states?'" he said. "Obviously, that's not a foolproof method."

Regulations aren't any tighter when it comes to nationwide organizations. Though some federal agencies require background checks for security reasons – the departments of Defense and State, for example – there are no across-the-board requirements for construction workers who are awarded federal contracts, according to Scott Brown, spokesman for Associated Builders and Contractors.

The Rosslyn, Va.-based trade organization represents over 23,000 construction and construction-related firms in the U.S.

The state of Nevada is the strictest of the states when it comes to checking out the criminal background of potential licensed contractors, Schmidt said.

Applicants in the Silver State have to go through a credit-history check and hand in four notarized references and Social Security verification. If there's anything fishy about any of those, the state does a criminal-background check that goes back 10 years in most cases, or even further if it seems something serious is afoot.

In some extreme cases, the state will even take fingerprints of the applicants. That has already uncovered two cases of false identity, said Nevada State Contractors Board spokeswoman Sonya Ruffin. About 10 percent of applicants go through a criminal-background check, she said.

But even Nevada's system has its limits, leaving final discretion up to homeowners, she said.

"Only the principals of the license are checked – it doesn't say anything about the people they hire," she said. "Be wary of the people your people are hiring. If it's not a person who's in a reputable company in the community, you take that risk."

After the Smart kidnapping, things might change.

Although criminal background checks in the contracting world are rare, drug testing is becoming more and more common, Brown said. The group encourages drug testing throughout the construction industry.

And Schmidt said that requiring criminal background checks will be an issue at a national contractors conference in Las Vegas in September.

Carden said giving licensing agencies the power to conduct criminal background checks could make the difference in Alabama.

"If we had the authority, yes, I think that would be great," he said. "It would help us better protect the public."