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North Neighborhoods
Homebuilder charged with stealing transformed by greed, accusers say

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Even James C. Platts' strongest detractors -- subcontractors who contend that he forged their names on legal documents and cheated them out of thousands of dollars -- say he built quality homes.

But people who have known and worked with Platts over the years believe that simple greed is what finally transformed Platts from a shrewd operator in the rough-and-tumble home-building business into a con man who stepped over the line.

Platts, 51, of Bradford Woods, is awaiting trial in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court on multiple counts of forgery and theft, all felonies.

In February, he was charged with stealing about $100,000 from the plumbers and heating contractors and kitchen supply companies who did business with his now-defunct Pinnacle Building Co. between 1996 and 1999.

Platts' trial date will be set sometime after June 7, when he is arraigned.

Platts also is facing a forgery charge in Beaver County for the activities of Easy Realty Solutions, a one-man company he started in 1999 after bailing out of the home-building industry, which has generated civil suits against Platts. Several other agencies also are investigating Easy Realty Solutions, a business in which Platts acts as a middleman for people who are being transferred and having trouble selling their houses.

Until Easy Realty, Platts had worked in construction all his life. People who know Platts said he was a clone of singer Jimmy Buffett, a hip guy who dresses in Dockers and Hawaiian shirts and likes to vacation in warm places such as Las Vegas and the Bahamas.

"He is flashy, a high roller," said Jack Sauer, owner of J.A. Sauer Co., a heating and air-conditioning company in Ross. Sauer is among those that Platts is accused of trying to defraud through forgery; Platts is also charged with keeping money that was owed to Sauer.

Platts spent the 1980s and 1990s building homes in fancy new North Hills subdivisions -- houses that now are valued at more than $500,000.

The son of a respected North Hills contractor, he didn't always keep his promises and was slow to pay his bills, but contractors dealt with Platts because he had a lot of business.

Platts had the ability to charm people into doing what he wanted. When he built a five-bedroom, nine-bathroom showplace house for himself in Bradford Woods in 1991, Platts persuaded subcontractors to work on his house for reduced fees, Sauer said.

"He was nobody you wanted to give your wallet to, but, hey, this is the construction business. It is a tough business," Sauer said.

Pam Cook, owner of P.F. Cook Brick Co. in Cranberry, said Platts was hard to get money out of, but that she kept a close eye on him and sold bricks to him for many years in a mutually lucrative arrangement.

"He built such enormous homes with a lot of brick," she said.

Cook got burned in 1999, when Platts was at the end of his home-building business. That's when a disgusted homeowner took the contract away from Platts, without Cook's knowledge, and Platts never paid Cook for $22,000 worth of brick.

Cook was among the contractors whose business dealings with Platts are described in an affidavit filed with the courts by William Miller, a detective in Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office.

Sauer said Platts had some business problems over the years, closed one company and opened another, but never filed for bankruptcy. At one point, when Platts owed Sauer a lot of money, "We worked it out through a couple of other dealings."

But in the final years of his home-building career, Sauer said, Platts kept telling his subcontractors that he was losing money and couldn't pay them.

"It became obvious that his customers were paying him and he was not paying us," Sauer said.

Top-notch subcontractors stopped working with Platts and, "He had to get guys who didn't know anything," Sauer said, adding that Platts "really burned them good."

Zappala's office has charged Platts with forging the signatures of subcontractors who did work for his company on waiver of lien agreements so that the money was released to him, not to the subcontractor.

According to the affidavit, Platts used the forged documents to collect the final payment from a bank for a construction loan and used the money for his own benefit, instead of paying subcontractors who had installed the plumbing, electrical work or roofing on the houses.

Because of his actions, some small subcontractors were forced out of business and others had to suffer serious financial difficulties, Cook said. She said a group of contractors who met at the North Suburban Builders Association in 1999 concluded that Platts owed them about $1 million for work they had performed but for which they hadn't been paid.

She said some of that money was accounted for in unpaid judgments, while the contractors wrote the rest off as losses. "There are people he actually put out of business," Cook said. "There are people who can't get credit because of him."

Rob Reiner, president of Suburban Insulation in Mars, said Platts set up a number of subcontractors during the construction of the last four or five homes he built by stringing them along and making empty promises. Reiner is another contractor whose dealings with Platts are described in the affidavit.

"He said, 'I will give you a check for this job when we start the next one,' " said Reiner.

As part of the investigation, Allegheny County detectives searched the Platts house and found evidence that Platts cut signatures from other documents and pasted them onto release of lien documents so he could collect money that should have gone to the subcontractors.

Platts is represented by criminal defense lawyer William F. Manifesto, who said his client would not give any interviews for this story.

In Beaver County, prosecutors filed two cases against Platts for his activities in Easy Realty Solutions, but one case was dismissed after the victims accepted restitution, said Ron DiGiorno, a Beaver County prosecutor.

DiGiorno said one forgery charge remained.

On Feb. 2, Allegheny County detectives arrested Platts at his home in Bradford Woods and charged him with 11 counts of forgery and 12 counts of theft by failure to properly deposit money.

He was arraigned in Night Court and released on $100,000 bond. Five days later, Deborah Platts, 48, a North Hills real estate agent, filed for divorce from her husband of 24 years, alleging that their marriage was irretrievably broken. The couple has two daughters. The Platts put their Bradford Woods home on the market for $1.3 million.

After a hearing Feb. 22, District Justice William K. Wagner in McCandless ordered Platts to stand trial on all but one forgery charge.

But despite indications that the Plattses' lives are starting to unravel, people who know James C. Platts don't believe it because Platts still seems to be living with his wife, traveling, socializing and driving big cars.

"There is only one Jim Platts," Cook said, adding that most people who go through financial downturns seem to be suffering, but "Jim Platts goes on with his lifestyle and seems to be thriving."

Contractors who are owed money said Platts got more difficult to deal with after he built the mansion in Bradford Woods for his family.

By 1997 or 1998, Sauer said, "Jim Platts was sketching in a new pool behind his house and telling everyone he was broke."

Sauer said he learned a tough lesson in his dealings with Platts.

"You are not doing yourself any business favors hanging around with people who are not ethical," Sauer said.

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