I-TEAM UPDATE: Judge rules in favor of local landscaper

Friday, December 21, 2018

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- According to court documents, a Columbia County judge has ruled in favor of Dustin VanHouse in the case involving Regina Kirkland.

Thursday, December 20, 2018
News 12 @ 6 O'clock / NBC 26 at 7

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- A landscaper at the center of an I-Team investigation faced one of his accusers and a judge on Thursday. Dustin VanHouse was in Columbia County Magistrate Court.

The I-Team first uncovered a pattern of problems with him this summer.

This all started over a deposit check, but after the I-Team started digging, both sides admit it's turned into something more.

"I've got materials that I've purchased. I've got time involved. I've got a check bounced. I've got News Channel 12 on my back. This cost me way over her deposit," Dustin VanHouse said in court.

"This isn't about money anymore," he said.

It's fair to say that might be the only thing Dustin VanHouse and Regina Kirkland can agree on.

"That's why we're at where we are today," Regina Kirkland said. "I started digging, and you started digging. When I contacted you and found out that this is a long history of him doing this to people. And he's got to be stopped," she said.

We first introduced you Kirkland this summer. She paid vanHouse a $1,000 deposit for work on her sprinkler system and sod, but he never did any of the work.

Almost 4 months to the day we took you to Regina's yard, she took Dustin to court.

"Last night, his lawyer called me. Wanted to get together last night at 8 pm. Then again this morning, he tried to resolve the issue, and I told him, 'I gave you 8 months," Kirkland said.

Dustin VanHouse acted as his own lawyer today, though.

“I don't understand. I've never understood that," VanHouse said. "Why do people look down on a businessman, a person that owns a business, runs a business, going to court?"

As we've reported, court is familiar territory for him.

Meredith Anderson: “You said in there, the truth comes out in the courtroom. Do you stand by that?"
Dustin VanHouse: "I stand - the system isn't perfect, but it's the best one that we have, and sometimes, sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn't go so well. Sometimes it does. But I think overall, it's a really good system."

He hopes that system rules in his favor today. VanHouse says he deserves to keep that money. Kirkland says she deserves her money back.

This is Magistrate Court, but now, it's also in another court: the court of public opinion. That's where you get to decide.

Dustin VanHouse: "What I want to happen? I want everybody to be happy."

Regina: Kirkland: "I can't say I didn't warn you. It's on you."

The judge said she would make her decision this afternoon and stick it in the mail. So it looks like we'll know something next week.

Meanwhile, he told you this summer he'd do an interview on a rainy day when he couldn't work. Today makes 52 rainy days, or 52 chances.

It''s fitting when he went on camera today, it was raining at the courthouse.

Monday, December 10, 2018
News 12 @ 6 O'clock / NBC 26 at 7

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Later this month, yet another contractor at the center of an I-Team investigation will face a judge after we exposed a problem with a job. Regina Kirkland told our I-Team she paid Dustin VanHouse of Bulldawg Total Lawn Care a thousand dollars, but he never did any of the work. Two months after our story aired, Kirkland got her court date.

However, we're talking about another court date for Dustin VanHouse. As our I-Team uncovered, it could be another example of Columbia County not doing everything it can to protect its citizens.

The last time Meredith Anderson spoke to Dustin VanHouse, he told her he'd do an interview with me when it rained again and he couldn't work.

She checked with Chief Meteorologist Kevin Coskren, and he says it's rained more than 45 days since that conversation.

The days, like the blocks, have also been piling up at Brad Hogsed's house. To be exact, it's been 1,167 days. "The wall fell on the 25th of September 2015," Brad Hogsed said. Ever since he's watched his finances crumble. "Fighting for principle at this point. I can't afford my principals." His faith in the legal system has also eroded right along with the Georgia clay. "You don't necessarily get what's right or what's fair," he said. "You get what you can afford."

That's why Brad agreed to show our I-Team the ruins in person instead of just in pictures.

Our I-Team first showed you pictures of his fallen wall this summer. We got them after filing an Open Records Request with Columbia County. It's also when we introduced you to Regina Kirkland and Wayne Quick, a Marine who, after our story aired, got his money back.
Both say they paid Dustin money for work he never did.

This is where Brad Hogsed's $96,000 wall comes in. It showed a possible pattern of problems with Dustin Vanhouse could go back several years. We kept digging and found Hogsed's lawsuit. Dustin VanHouse did not pull a permit, and an affidavit revealed he didn't have a business license or workers comp insurance. It also showed he did not even the proper certification to build the wall. The jury ordered Dustin Vanhouse to pay more than $180,000 dollars.

It's not that simple, though.

VanHouse's insurance company turned around and sued him and Brad so it wouldn't have to pay the $180-grand. "I, I can't go up against, you know, an insurance company," Hogsed said.

This was still working its way through the legal system when our I-Team's first story regarding VanHouse and Bulldawg Total Lawn Care aired.

He reached out to us recently after he hit a wall. "If the legal system failed, you're kind of it," he said. Brad says he's in debt from the first legal fight, so he can't afford another. He says he also can't afford to fix the wall or get rid of it. "Well, I can't sell this house. I can't list it," he said.

Meredith Anderson: "It's just going to go into foreclosure?"
Brad Hogsed: "I have no choice. I can't save this anymore."

Could Columbia County have saved others after this? VanHouse got a ticket for not having a permit.

Columbia County could have come down a lot harder.

According to its Code, "Each day any violation of any of the provisions of this Code shall continue shall constitute a separate offense," meaning the County could have slapped VanHouse with a new fine every single day. Let's go back to the number of days since the wall fell: 1,167. Columbia County Code says fines cannot exceed $1,000, so, say we put a price tag of $250 a day. Today, that would be almost $300,000 ($291,750).

If the County enforced this, could that have forced a fix that could save Brad's house?

Hogsed says he is current on all his payments and bills. However, he says VanHouse ruined his property value, meaning he cannot ever build equity in its current state nor can he refinance or sell the property. Basically, it means he's stuck with a mess he cannot escape unless the home goes into foreclosure.

Winning isn't collecting.

Brad Hogsed won the lawsuit, but lost the value he had built up in his home. He says he decided to cut his loses even more and take a small settlement. He told us he had hoped it would cover bankruptcy. He has since decided to not go down that road just yet. For now, he says he will have to continue to live with the mess Dustin left behind. He'll continue to make payments on the property he says Dustin ruined.

Meanwhile, VanHouse will be in Columbia County Magistrate court again later this month. We'll be there, and our I-Team will stay on this for you. We're often told cases like these are "a civil matter" or "these cases belong in civil court."

A civil courtroom isn't always the answer. It could hurt a victim more in the end.

Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018
News 12 @ 6 o'clock / NBC 26 at 7

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- A News 12 I-Team investigation is once again getting results.

Just about this same time last night, our Meredith Anderson showed us what she uncovered about a local landscaper. Tonight, she has an update.

Wayne Quick says it's been a very frustrating seven months, but after our I-Team story aired, he had his money within 14 hours.

Meredith Anderson: "You came here for court today and no court."
Wayne Quick: "Yes. Worked out very well. Pleased with the outcome."

That's because Wayne Quick says before the hearing even started, the attorney for landscaper Dustin VanHouse approached him with cash.

We first introduced you to the Former Marine last night. He showed us where he hired Dustin VanHouse to install a french drain, but seven months later, there's still no drain. He says VanHouse never did any work at all, yet refused to return the $750 deposit.

Quick says he was more than happy for it to come to an end this morning before a judge had to get involved. "I just wanted my refund back, and I wanted myself and him to just part ways," Quick said. "No further action."

He also never expected to he'd be talking to the news about this. Meredith Anderson tracked him down when she started digging into complaints against VanHouse. Quick's complaint was part of a report with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office. With $750 cash in hand, Quick says getting his story out helped. "To get this out in public has certainly had a tremendous impact."

Vanhouse admits he did not know about his court hearing this morning. He told Meredith Anderson he would have gone to jail if not for the story last night alerting him to that hearing. He says his attorney dropped everything to help him out and meet Quick this morning.

Dustin VanHouse says he would like to sit down with Meredith Anderson for an interview. He says the best time for him is when it rains and he can't work. He says he has to work every day the weather allows him to work. He says he can't afford not to work.

However, if time goes by and that work is not completed because he is behind, he says he still thinks it's fair that he keeps the deposit. He says it says "non-refundable" in his contracts.

Meredith reached out to two attorneys today. Both told her "non-refundable" doesn't automatically mean Vanhouse gets to keep the deposit, especially if work has never been done.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018
(News 12 at 6 o'clock)

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- The landscape could be changing when it comes to an I-Team investigation, but we're still talking about your backyard.

After diving into problems with pools, our I-Team has been digging deeper into local landscaper Dustin VanHouse and his companies Bulldawgs Total Lawn Care and French Drain Specialists of Augusta. It goes beyond cutting the grass; we're talking about a $96,000 retaining wall that failed. Others say VanHouse failed to do any work at all.

Regina Kirkland wonders if she's about to open another floodgate. "I mean, it's like the pool people all over again. It just blows my mind," she said. She's not referring to her pool company, though. She's happy with the one she hired this summer. She's referring to the ones our I-Team has been investigating. "So then, I see your story, and I thought, 'let me see if she can help.' So here we are."

Regina says she hired Bulldawgs Total Lawn Care to fix part of her sprinkler system.

Regina: "From the back of the fence, straight up here."
Meredith: "One line, basically?"
Regina: "One line with about 3 or 4 sprinkler heads."

That was the priority. Then, down the road, she wanted some sod. Regina says she paid a $1,000 deposit on the entire project, thinking the sprinkler would be fixed in a couple of days. When she says Bulldawgs didn't do the work in a couple of weeks, she asked for her deposit back but was told no.

"I've already ordered your supplies. And I'm like, what supplies? PVC pipe and some sprinkler heads? You can go to Lowe's and get that."

We got something else at the Richmond County Courthouse. We found Dustin VanHouse was busted in Augusta of 2015 for not having a county business license and for building a retaining wall without a permit.

He also didn't have a permit either when he built a retaining wall in Columbia County (or what was supposed to be a retaining wall). When code enforcement slapped him with a ticket, VanHouse refused to sign. In May of 2018, a jury sided with the family, ordering Dustin VanHouse to pay more than $180,000. We did find where he offered to rebuild the wall and clean up the mess, but according to this affidavit, he couldn't.

Paul Scarbary, Columbia County's Director of Building Standards, said VanHouse didn't have a business license. He also said VanHouse's workers' compensation insurance expired, and he was no longer bonded. On top of that, the affidavit says VanHouse didn't have the proper certification to build a wall in the first place.

Wayne Quick says he hired Vanhouse, too. He says he reached out to VanHouse's company, French Drain Specialists of Augusta, to ask about a French drain. We checked and couldn't find a business license for that company in Columbia County, but we found its Facebook page and a website.

"It was going to be $3,000, and I gave him a 25% deposit, " Wayne said. He says he paid $750 because he got a military discount. The former Marine says VanHouse has never returned to any of the work. "The last conversation he and I attempted to have, he hung up the phone on me," Wayne said. "I have not been in contact with him since."

Wayne should see him Wednesday morning in Columbia County Magistrate Court for a pre-warrant hearing. That's a hearing like one last month for Bruce and Heather Alford, of Georgia-Lina Pools. Both were arrested on the spot.

Wayne says he's hopeful he'll get justice, and Regina will be watching. "It's just been a nightmare trying to get my money back," she said. She's also filed the paperwork to see if she'll also get her day in court.

A judge says VanHouse was served almost a month ago. He has until this Thursday, August 30, to file an answer or September 14th to open default and file an answer.

I-Team reporter Meredith Anderson called VanHouse, and he told her he was too busy to meet for an interview. He says he stands by his contracts that say every deposit is non-refundable. He goes on to say all of his customers, including Regina and Wayne, knew that before they gave him any money.

He told Meredith he would have to check his schedule to see if he could make it. As for the retaining wall lawsuit, VanHouse and his company are appealing. We will let you know what happens with that and what happens in Columbia County Magistrate Court on Wednesday.