Is he a con artist or just a contractor caught in a down economy?
At least eight irate customers think Brian Ackerman, owner of Brooklyn Kitchens and Baths in Park Slope, is a rip-off artist — a Bernie Madoff of home repair who runs a Ponzi scheme that dupes clients into paying up front and in cash for work that does not get done.
The eight victims say they’re owed around $60,000 for incomplete or shoddy renovations — and they’re pursuing a legal case.
“We’re considering a multi-pronged attack through criminal actions, the Better Business Bureau and the Department of Consumer Affairs, while also reaching out to more people who have had same issue,” said lawyer Audrey Roth. “We’ll show this is his regular way of doing business.”
Ackerman does not deny that he hasn’t completed work on some clients’ houses, but insists he was not trying to screw anyone over — he’s just going through tough times.
“I lost my shirt, there is no hiding it,” said an exasperated Ackerman. “There was no motive to hurt anyone. I never lied to anyone.”
Ackerman’s legal woes are also no mystery. He has three pending cases in Brooklyn and Queens civil court, as well as two others that were resolved in 2007.
Last week, one spurned customer won $3,000 in small claims court against Ackerman, who did not appear in court, according to the plaintiff.
Roth and others said they were not as concerned about reimbursement as about stopping Ackerman from reeling in new customers with what they described as an irresistible blend of charisma, charm and big talk.
“There ought to be consequences for taking peoples money and not giving them what they’ve paid for,” said Roth. “There are people who have holes in their houses and can’t get certificates of occupancy because the work isn’t done.”
Anyone who has had any work done in his home knows that the process is often more expensive and more time-consuming than first predicted. But one of Ackerman’s customers, Gerard Feil, said the problems that the group experienced was not part of the typical tension from home renovations.
“All contractors do some of this stuff, but Brian is way over the top!” said Feil, who says he is owed $5,300. “Every single day is another call with excuses and lies.”
But Feil is not even close to being Ackerman’s biggest critic.
Sandy McCallion says she paid around $30,000 starting in June of 2008 for renovations of her Prospect-Lefferts Garden home that is still in a state of disrepair.
McCallion was so upset that she hired Roth to begin looking into Ackerman’s business practices. Roth said she quickly found evidence that McCallion’s unfinished living room and bathroom was not an isolated incident.
One person, Denton Taylor, had set up a Web site called “Why Brooklyn Kitchens?” that harshly criticizes the renovator, while also admonishing would-be customers, “If you value your sanity, DO NOT give Brooklyn Kitchens a penny of your money. You will regret it.”
The site also features an assortment of e-mails from customers who echo others’ complaints.
A forum on the blog Brownstoner, also started by Taylor, features even more tirades from customers.
“I firmly believe that Brian is a sociopath whose lies have gotten the best of him,” reads one vicious post.
Roth was so surprised by the perceived pattern of bad business that she organized a support group of sorts, which held its first meeting last week.
“I actually said, ‘Hi, my name is Sandy. I’m a lawyer and I’m stupid,’ ” recalled McCallion, who attended Yale Law School.
Another person, who wished not to be named for fear of retribution from Ackerman, was struck by the pedigree of all the participants at the meeting.
“All of us were professionals,” said the customer, who claims she was screwed out of roughly $1,000. “We were all stunned that we had been so deceived!”
Ackerman was shocked by the ire of his clients.
“It makes me look like a thief!” Ackerman said. “I’m literally broke! After all the favors I did for those people! I satisfied hundreds and hundreds of customers. It all falls apart now because I’m in financial trouble. I’m going to need to get someone to help me build my rep again.”
A sign in the window at Brooklyn Kitchens and Baths says that the business is closed but will reopen soon.