Aubuchon playing it straight on bill to resolve drywall disputes March 2, 2009
Defective Chinese drywall ... Sounds like a Monty Python skit.
It's not. With toxic emissions, screwed-up air conditioners from those emissions and foul odors, the building material is causing problems for Florida homeowners.
But one bill the Legislature will consider as it kicks off its regular session Tuesday could be a segment on "That's Incredible!" for all its coincidences.
House Bill 709 is sponsored by Rep. Gary Aubuchon, a Cape Coral Republican and builder. One of the homes Aubuchon built, for Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, has bad drywall in it. Aubuchon says one doesn't have anything to do with the other.
His bill is a tweak to a five-year-old law that sets out parameters for resolving construction-defect disputes, ideally in ways that avoid costly litigation but still protect consumers. The bill was first proposed and backed by attorneys who practice property law.
Pete Dunbar, a Tallahassee lobbyist, is pushing the glitch bill this year for the Real Property, Probate & Trust Law Section of The Florida Bar.
The bill and drywall "don't relate, from our perspective. If that is a problem in construction it would be applicable in this law," Dunbar said.
The Florida Justice Association - don't call them trial attorneys - on first blush don't have a problem with the bill. That may be the best clue that there's nothing nefarious going on.
Sen. Thad Altman, a Brevard County contractor, has the bill in the Senate: "I think this is a consumer-friendly bill. I don't think this is in any way designed to protect contractors."
One final coincidence. When the original construction-defect bill passed the Legislature it was carried by then-Cape Coral Republican legislator, Jeff Kottkamp.
As Hurricane Ike barreled toward Texas last year, Floridians were hit with a gasoline-price storm.
Thousands of complaints led to dozens of subpoenas from Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson. Retailers can get off the hook with the gouging cops if they can show they were just passing along increased costs from suppliers, as was the notorious Tallahassee case of $5.49-a-gallon gas that was key in a run on the pumps.
Then we'll draw the government a map," Martin said. "Maybe we don't need the EPA anymore."
The Watchdog group released a statement earlier this week listing Virginia, California, Arizona, Nevada, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Texas as states where the drywall can be found.
Martin said he expects a "seismic" shift from Florida to the West Coast on the drywall issue, because that's where most of it came into the country and reports are proliferating in California, Nevada, Arizona and as far as Portland, Ore., he said.
Martin also said he expects numerous U.S. drywall manufacturers will prove to be involved in the drywall issue, through a supposed "private labeling" deal with Knauf Tianjin, the Chinese drywall manufacturer linked most to the defective drywall.
Under such an agreement the drywall, supplied by Knauf, would be re-labeled and distributed under the U.S. manufacturer's name, Martin said.
Michael Gardner, executive director of the Gypsum Association, which represents gypsum manufactures throughout the United States and some in Canada, said he had not heard of the practice "and we would have no knowledge of such activity," he said.
But a Lehigh Acres resident, George Brincku, found National Gypsum drywall in his home with the same corrosive properties as the Chinese drywall.
He is now a plaintiff in the drywall class action suit filed Monday in Miami.
The drywall was installed Aug. 13, 2004, the day Hurricane Charley hit, Brincku said in a Jan. 21 e-mail to The News-Press seeking help.
"This whole thing doesn't make sense," he wrote. "If we test out positive for Chinese drywall this will blow everyone's theory out the window."
"We have heard of the Brincku complaint and we have been working with him and his counsel to find out what's going on in that house," said Sam Schiffman, chief legal counsel for National Gypsum.
Schiffman said he has also heard speculation about American producers rebranding or relabeling their product. "Of course, we've never done that either," he said.
Martin said he plans to release his testing results and the watchdog group is the largest private consumer group in the country. They act as consultants in various consumer advocacy cases but are working on the drywall case for free, Martin said.
McCollum this week showcased a gouging settlement with Flash Foods Inc., an operator of 16 stations in Northeast Florida. As part of the deal Flash Foods cut a $40,000 check to the Red Cross.
"I want people to know that our office is aggressive, that we're going to come and find you if you're price gouging," McCollum said.
McCollum has five investigations still open, along with 16 further joint inquiries with Bronson. McCollum should be aggressive. So should consumers.
We all have in our power the ability to control a part of the supply side of the famous price equation.
Don't panic purchase.
The good news Wednesday was existing home sales in Florida were up 24 percent.
The bad news is they didn't sell for much, with the median price of sales down a third to $139,500.
It is, as the touts say, a buyer's market.
Two Panhandle lawmakers are doing their part.
Rep. Dave Murzin of Pensacola didn't close on a new home Wednesday, even though he was primed to do so - gallstone surgery (not Murzin's), flu and various snafus kept him from it.
He'll scramble during session now to close on the house near Nine Mile Road.
Rep. Clay Ford bought a new house in Gulf Breeze in November.
He'll wait until after session to put his old place on the market to give him a chance to spruce it up and hope for the economic tide to turn.
Until then, the lawyer Ford will carry both.
"I'm having to struggle to make payments. I'm like everybody else," Ford said.
Paul Flemming is the state editor for Gannett's Florida newspapers and floridacapitalnews.com.