Page 2 of 2
Scene last caught up with Wolfe in 2005, after his second state prosecution and a slew of lawsuits. He told us then that that the Better Business Bureau was "on a campaign to crucify and destroy" him (his laments, then as now, tend toward the messianic); currently, however, Wolfe's standing with the nonprofit mediating organization is rosier.
Wolfe relocated his construction operations from Mentor to Aurora in 2006 - intentionally or not - skirting the purview of the Greater Cleveland Better Business Bureau, which by that point had tallied a damning corpus of consumer complaints against him.
Now under the aegis of the Akron-area BBB, Neil's rating is an immaculate A+; Piunno's file states "Complaint resolved with BBB assistance." Piunno contests the verdict; since Wolfe told the BBB he was willing to resume work once Piunno paid him the balance of the contract, their dispute resolution consultant closed the case. Piunno encountered a similar stalemate when she filed a complaint with the Attorney General's Office.
A cursory search of Northeast Ohio municipal and common pleas court dockets reveals that Wolfe's no stranger to tort and contract litigation, however. Kathi Piergies tried suing Wolfe in 2008, the beginning of a four-year case that Piergies eventually lost because Wolfe's performance bond paid out.
One of the obstacles homeowners face when they pursue litigation against Wolfe is what Mentor Building Commissioner Scott Amos regards as his "ironclad contract." According to Piergies, "he'll structure his contract such that you pay ahead. Once he thinks he's gotten as much as he can get from you, he takes off with half of it built. Then he files a lien against you for the balance and uses it as a bargaining chip to get you to back off in courts."
"He would win quite often because of his contract," agrees Amos. "When he gets to court, he says, 'I did this, this, this and this,' and it's his word against theirs. [The contract] lists the dates he'll get paid, but it doesn't state the work that has to get done in order to get this money."
Piergies is worried that Wolfe has become "more aggressive," emboldened by the relative impunity he's enjoyed in the courts. As Massilon resident Peggy Benham discovered last July, "aggressive" is an appropriate term: Wolfe won't relent, even if you're dead.
Wolfe contracted with the Veteran's Administration to remove an interior wall and install a wheelchair lift and bathroom expansion to accommodate Benham's husband William, a disabled Vietnam vet. Though the Benhams received a grant for the project and Wolfe was financed through the Veteran's Association, Benham says he kept pestering the couple for additional funds, saying he needed additional cash up front for supplies. "This should be a red flag," says Amos. "Reputable contractors have good credit at supply houses."
The contract was approved by the VA in January; Wolfe tarried, and the Benhams had to re-submit a renewal for the grant application three times. The contractor didn't show up to work until July. Workers didn't take measures to contain the insulation and dust debris from the wall demolition, which exacerbated William's lung cancer and emphysema complications; his medical aide was forced to double his breathing treatments. "He wanted to be at home," Benham tearfully explains. "We were trying to figure out what to do to keep this stuff away from him. That last week just put him under."
William passed away on July 15th. Weeks later, Peggy received the same lien notification Wolfe had sent to Davis and Piunno. She knew the Veteran's Administration would handle payment for the work Wolfe had already done, a fraction of the original contract, and hoped he would stop contacting her. But Wolfe was furious she didn't want to proceed with the designated installations, though she by then had no need for a bathroom expansion or wheelchair lift. "I hate that I let this happen," says Benham. "I was like, 'My husband just passed away. I don't want to deal with you.'"
Homeowners aren't the only ones exasperated by Wolfe's dilatory behavior and what Benham terms his "extortionary" business principles. Amos indicates that Wolfe's subcontractors are frequently treated to the same chicanery as his clients: "He goes through subcontractors—he strings them along, keeping them with him to a point where he owes them money, and after a while, they just give up."
One of Neil's subcontractors who wished not to be mentioned by name insists that Wolfe has "screwed everyone over." "How can you justify this?" he clamors months later. "You're ripping me off and you're ripping off the customer." Though Wolfe still owes him "quite a chunk of money," he refuses to work for the contractor again. "You're dealing with a real psycho," he affirms. "Get the word out there so he's not burning more people."
Vance Goodman, a drywaller who worked on the Piunno property, was privy to another of Wolfe's unsavory trademarks: his predilection for racist epithets. When told that Wolfe growled, "You fucking dagos are all alike" in high dudgeon at the Piunno residence, Goodman wasn't surprised. He ruefully shared a representative text from Wolfe, choice excerpts, censored here, of which include: "You acted like an uppity N*****... is that how a man acts? Or a n*****, a child, a pussy?... You people are your own worst enemy."
"He's a lunatic," Goodman remarks of his embattled tenure with Wolfe. "I don't deal with him anymore."
The Piunnos aren't so lucky. Forsaken by the Attorney General's Office and the Better Business Bureau, their only recourse now is to seek funds to repair the addition through Wolfe's bonding agency, but Charles Drazetic, Housing Manager for the City of Euclid, believes their prospects aren't promising: "Right now, it's turning out to be a 'he said, she said' situation," he explains.
To the Piunnos, the dispute amounts to more than that. Unlike Wolfe's workers, Debbie and Joe can't just walk off the job. "He took all our hopes, our dreams, our money, and left us with a piece of crap," says Joe. Debbie nods. She's crying again, wiping her cheeks with the backs of her hands like a child.
"We trusted him," she huskily manages. "Now our lives are in shambles."