A double preliminary hearing in Vilas County Circuit Court on Wednesday morning found enough probable cause of felony conduct in the case of theft by a Minocqua contractor of more than $97,000 from the St. Germain Chamber of Commerce and nearly $50,000 from an Arbor Vitae couple.
St. Germain Chamber building project
Gerald Stodola, 58, Minocqua, of Stodola Contracting Solutions of Hazelhurst, is accused of taking money received from the St. Germain Chamber building project for uses besides payment of labor and materials in a project never finished, but was hired to do, according to testimony.
“We, after having the bidding out, hired Gerald Stodola,” St. Germain executive director Penny Strom testified before the court with Judge Neal Nielsen.
The first payment to Stodola’s contracting business for start-up and initial operating costs was written for about $51,000 around the ground-breaking in July 2018. The completion date was set for December, Strom told assistant district attorney Scott Niemi when questioned about details.
The second payment went to Stodola in August of 2018 for around $32,000, Strom said. Payments were made through a lien waiver and draw process involving the Chamber and Vilas County Title, it was indicated.
The Chamber began to suspect something was wrong when several sub-contracts began asking why they were not being paid and the amount of workers went down from up to five to just two around late November, Strom testified. The Chamber questioned their contractor.
Stodola reportedly requested a payment of around $49,000 then to continue work at that point, Strom told the court.
“Workers were walking off the job (and) not being paid and coming in … he wanted to (stay) on as contractor … (Stodola) admitted to needing it, using it for other means,” Strom said when the Chamber Board and its building committee questioned him in person. The initial $51,000 downpayment was never given back to the Chamber, Strom confirmed when asked by Niemi, even with work incomplete. “Our attorney said it was best to cut ties with him.”
That cut happened around November of 2018. An itemized list of what was paid for was never issued to the Chamber. Stodola was asked to remove all his equipment and sign and return the closed contract due to default, it was said in court.
“To date, he has not returned it,” Strom said of the contract.
“Did it cost you extra money?” Niemi asked.
“Everything cost us extra money,” Strom said. “We are just finishing now. We do not have final numbers as of yet … he said he used it for other reasons other than the Chamber building … he said he needed it for other projects.”
At least $51,000 was from the Chamber’s own pocket, Strom testified, “… to cover that that wasn’t paid.”
The St. Germain Chamber noted they were at about a $97,189 loss currently, based on court documents.
Stodola’s attorney, Ben Lucarelli, asked Strom if payments had been authorized by the Chamber and Vilas County title — Strom said yes.
“By the time the third payment was made in October, were you satisfied with the job?” he asked. “The job was being completed? … you wouldn’t have given Mr. Stodola the third payment?”
“Correct,” Strom replied, adding, “he said he used the money for another project.”
Completed by Stodola was framing of the building and some walls, Strom said. A different contractor came on board to finish the building in its entirety.
“The court will find there is probable cause felony conduct has been committed,” Nielsen observed after testimony ended with no other witnesses.
Arbor Vitae residence remodel
In another felony court case, Stolda is said to have misused funds paid to him in March of 2018 to renovate an Arbor Vitae residence for a couple moving from Illinois.
The victim, who called in by phone from where the couple is staying in Vermont due to renovations still being unfinished in Vilas County, testified to the court that Stodola was the contractor who agreed to re-do their home for around $95,000 and complete it within about four weeks. Both parties agreed to some increases and/or decreases in that figure should anything change as the remodel took place, the victim said.
The base remodel agreement had a total of almost $95,000 with an option of a screened porch project at about $27,000. The customer stated he estimated a $47,000 loss, based on the criminal complaint.
“Was it a contract?” Niemi asked.
“I thought of it as a contract, but the wording was ‘proposal,’ …(Stodola) said no work would start until it was signed, so I did,” the victim said. “They started, then stopped, work.”
“Did you ask them to stop?” Niemi questioned.
“No,” the victim said, adding he’d asked them to keep going when asked, but it did not do any good.
Sub-contracts noted to the homeowners they could not continue without being paid, the victim testified further.
“I initially paid $80,000 in two installments, one when work began, and one a month later,” relayed the victim. The couple left the area around April 2018 so they would not have to live around the construction, he added. They checked back every few months and saw some work being done, not all correctly, the victim observed.
“Most of the time we were trying to negotiate completion of the project,” relayed the victim. “He said in fact we owed him money …I don’t think the words refund ever were exchanged.
Stodola eventually informed the couple he was quitting the project. The couple was left to pay some of the unpaid subcontractors, including for services such as drywall, flooring, electrical and plumbing work, the victim said.
“Using his own numbers, (Stodola) didn’t spend $80,000 on our project, I don’t know what he spent it on,” the victim said.
Lucarelli questioned if most of the remodel was within reason — to which the victim agreed, also agreeing he was initially happy with Stodola’s work.
“I think the stumbling blocks were he couldn’t do something because he didn’t have the money,” testified the victim. “I do not know where the money went. I did not get evidence it went to my project.”
Nielsen also found probable cause moving forward with the felony charges in that case, noting some matters involved may be civil.
Lucarelli did not agree to moving forward to arraignment immediately, which was set for Oct. 7 in both matters.