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N.J. contractor pays $150,000 restitution to homeowners

Barbara O'Brien of Cherry Hill needed a cap placed on her chimney.

Barbara O'Brien of Cherry Hill needed a cap placed on her chimney.

The $50 job, however, turned into a $3,100 ordeal after the contractor told O'Brien that her chimney was no longer attached to her house. It had collapsed from the weight of a ladder, she was told.

"I was horrified," she said. She called a friend - a Cherry Hill police officer - for help. More than two years later, O'Brien received a $3,100 restitution check.

O'Brien, 63, is among 31 homeowners across the state who this month received part of $150,000 in restitution after an investigation by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office concluded that the company deliberately damaged homes to charge for expensive repairs.

"Consumers are getting their hard-earned money back, which was our goal from the start of this legal process," acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said this month in announcing restitution for those allegedly bilked by Sulejman Lita, 37, of North Haledon, Passaic County.

"Just as importantly, we banned Lita from working in the state's home improvement industry for three years and permanently shut down his businesses," Hoffman said.

For O'Brien, troubles began when the cap came off her chimney, which extended above her two-story home. She picked Lita's company from the phone book and was surprised when several workers soon arrived for a simple job.

Shortly after the contractor went onto her roof, O'Brien said, she was called outside to find a pile of bricks beside her home that had been her chimney. Because the chimney vented the furnace, she immediately needed thousands of dollars in repairs.

She called other contractors, some of whom were skeptical that the chimney had collapsed from the weight of the ladder.

Coincidentally, O'Brien had put a new roof on her house about six months earlier. She called the roofer and asked whether workers noticed chimney problems at that time. She was told that if there had been a problem, she would have been required to sign a waiver acknowledging she declined needed chimney repairs.

O'Brien filed a complaint with the attorney general's Division of Consumer Affairs. There had been numerous other complaints against Lita and his companies, based in North Jersey. Authorities say the companies advertised services in New York and Pennsylvania also.

According to state investigators, Lita used variations of business names that included AAA Reliable, Old Reliable Construction, Safeway Construction, and Safeway Improvements.

Lita could not be reached for comment. A phone number listed under his name has been disconnected. His attorney, J. Barry Cocoziello, said Lita agreed to make restitution and pay fines through a consent agreement in which he admitted no wrongdoing. Cocoziello said state investigators never proved that Lita intentionally damaged homes.

"Quite candidly, regular businesspeople get worn down in protracted litigation, so you do what you have to do," Cocoziello said in explaining Lita's decision to make restitution.

State investigators allege that Lita targeted senior citizens, offering free inspections and low-priced repairs. Lita's workers, investigators alleged, damaged chimneys, roofs, and gutters, and coerced consumers to pay for expensive repairs. At times, workers warned homeowners that if chimney repairs were not made, it might lead to a carbon monoxide leak into the home.

In addition to restitution, Lita is required to pay the state $165,000 in penalties and costs. An additional $300,000 civil penalty was suspended but can be imposed if Lita violates the settlement.

Consumer complaints can be filed with Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll-free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200.

O'Brien said she appreciates the fact that her complaint was taken seriously.

"I was just shocked that there are people who do this," she said.