Proposed Florida law would crack down on illicit pest-control companies

Mar 20, 2009

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is particularly concerned about soil pre-treatments at new construction sites to prevent subterranean termites.

By Diane C. Lade

South Florida Sun-Sentinel–March 19, 2009

Florida consumer officials are pressing the Legislature to pass a new law that they say will help them get tough on rogue pest control companies that repeatedly defraud their customers. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is particularly concerned about soil pre-treatments at new construction sites to prevent subterranean termites.

Andy Rackley, director of the division of agricultural environmental services, says inspectors have caught companies applying diluted chemicals to some sites and filing paperwork certifying termite pre-treatment was completed in places where it wasn’t done.

But Rackley said state regulators can’t readily fine or shut down repeat offenders because state law requires clear evidence the company owners “knowingly” encouraged or facilitated fraud or improper practices by staff. Rackley said the current system, which was instituted in 1994, puts the legal burden on the lowest-level pest control employees.

HB 1447, sponsored by the department, would change that. It would allow state officials to take action against owners and license holders for improper training or supervision, if a company is cited repeatedly for the same type of violations. Currently, regulators must prove owners were directing their employees to break state guidelines for pest control.

Consumers would have more protection, the department said, because companies would have an incentive to follow the rules, and to properly train and manage their workers. And the public could more easily identify which companies are repeat offenders since the corporation, rather than the person applying the pesticide, would be named in public disciplinary records.

“Every other state can take action against a company without barriers,” Rackley said. “As the business has gotten more competitive, and pest control people are cutting corners to cut costs, it’s even more imperative we do this.”

State records show 342 pest control complaints were filed by inspectors and consumers statewide in fiscal year 2007-08. The most common reasons were contract disputes and illegal or unlicensed operators, which together comprised 42 percent of the complaints.

Only five complaints involved soil pre-treatments. But officials believe pre-treatment problems are vastly under-reported because problems often doesn’t surface until years after a home is constructed.

Among the 628 actions taken on the 2007-08 complaints were 200 orders to stop doing business, 170 warning letters, 93 fines totaling $132,125 and seven suspensions.

The pest control industry says the legislative proposal opens responsible operators to litigation. “The law already requires that employees be trained, and that the training be documented. We think that’s enough,” said Allen Fugler, vice president of the Florida Pest Management Association, which opposes the provision.

Howard Hochman, a Miami attorney who was a former association consultant and represents pest control companies, said the state “already has all the tools it needs.” Instead of pushing for a redraft of the law, state regulators should work more closely with local State Attorney Offices to bring criminal charges in the most egregious cases, he said.

But he agreed that pre-treatment schemes “are a black eye for the business” –and that the competitive South Florida pest control market provides a stage for the few bad players. “It’s a combination of tough economics, incompetent enforcement and cheating,” he said.

There are 297 licensed pest control professionals in Palm Beach County and 350 in Broward County.

One soil termite pre-treatment case involved Diligent Environmental Services of Boca Raton. The company and state inspectors battled over Diligent’s pre-treatment practices for years. In 2007, the company agreed to fold Diligent Environmental Services but retains a license to do pest control under its second company, Diligent Lawn and Pest Control.

Hochman, who represented Diligent, said the owners had planned to consolidate anyway. They fought the state because they felt inspectors unfairly targeted them with repeat inspections and that the discipline process violated the Florida open records law, Hochman said.