Fire sale

A Nevada contractor is caught up in a California tragedy and the law

Don Rue owns a contracting business and is a member of the Fernley Chamber of Commerce. He’s worried that his good reputation is being destroyed by overzealous California investigators.

Don Rue owns a contracting business and is a member of the Fernley Chamber of Commerce. He’s worried that his good reputation is being destroyed by overzealous California investigators.

Photo By David Robert

Don Rue doesn’t want to be known around the Reno area as a felon, but even more importantly, he doesn’t want to be known as a scumbag, a shady character willing to take advantage of the poor folks who lost everything in the devastating wildfire earlier this summer at South Lake Tahoe. But that’s just what he stands accused of: contracting without a license in the disaster area. A jury will likely have to decide whether Rue did anything wrong because he says he is unwilling to play Let’s Make A Deal with the district attorney.

Rue—who’s known by the nickname “Rooster"—learned of the fire on the evening news on Sunday, June 24. As the tragedy unfolded over the next couple of days, he was among the countless Northern Nevadans who wanted to do something to help. Rue was uniquely positioned to assist. A couple of years ago, he moved from Reno to Fernley to start a landscaping and excavation company. When the Angora fire erupted, he owned two backhoes, one of them just six days old. He called the El Dorado County Sheriff’s office and a disaster relief center, offering to drive up with his gear to help secure the fire lines. “Have Equipment—Will Work For Food” read the flyer that he faxed to authorities in South Lake Tahoe and Placerville.

“All I was asking for was a sandwich every four to six hours,” Rue explains. “We’re ‘pay it forward’ people.”

Despite the generous offer, no one ever called him back.

Every July for years, Don and his wife, Barbara, have vacationed at Camp Richardson, a lakeside campground that was threatened by—but ultimately spared from—the wildfire’s fury. With the fire contained and the welcome mat out, the couple drove their RV up Highway 50. They had planned on some relief from the sweltering, triple-digit temperatures in Reno and the Truckee Meadows. Instead, Barbara was scrambling to come up with the money needed to bail Don out of jail.

While at the lake, Don read about the “sting” to catch unlicensed contractors offering their services to fire victims. While Don was indeed licensed in Nevada, once he passed Harrah’s on the main lake ring road into California, he didn’t have a legal leg to stand on if he did—or even bid on—any work. Rue says he clearly understood that. And, all over the place, California officials had posted big red signs:


It is a FELONY to contract without a valid California contractors license in this disaster area.

Despite knowing the law and knowing that cops were posing as homeowners who’d lost everything—trying to lure unscrupulous contractors—Rue says he decided to see whether his skills and equipment might come in handy. This time around, he wasn’t offering his services for free.

“I hear that there’s 250 homes devastated up there,” he says. “There’s a lot of work available. There’s plenty of work for everybody.” Rue says his “feasibility study"—as he now describes it—would decide whether it was worth his while to get a California license. So he printed up a second flyer and passed copies around. One of them ended up in the hands of agents from the California Contractors State License Board (CSLB), who were intrigued, to say the least, by Rue’s “Angora Fire Cleanup” offer. It included phrases such as “Reasonable Rates With Excellent Results” and “Licensed – Bonded – Insured.” He left out the words, “in Nevada.”

On the night of July 25, a man calling himself John Little phoned the number on the flyer. “Says he’s from Sacramento, has a house up in the Angora burn area,” Rue remembers. “He needs some cleanup work, some trees removed.” Rue says he made it crystal-clear—several times—that he wasn’t yet licensed in California. He recalls saying, “I’m not about to do anything until I have proper credentials.” Rue says he also suggested that the guy call the city of South Lake Tahoe to get a list of approved laborers, but that the supposed homeowner told him he was “in a hurry to get this done.”

The following morning, Rue ventured for the first time into the disaster zone. “Mr. Little” met him outside a fire-ravaged home and asked how much Rue would charge to remove a big, burned tree. Rue says that, yet again, he told the man he wasn’t yet licensed in California. “He continually asked me, ‘Give me a bid, give me a price,'” but—aware this could be a trap—Rue says he never offered a quote. He did, however, say he had done a similar job in Fernley for about $3,100.

“Next thing I know, I’m being handcuffed,” Rue says, his voice shaking. “I just peed my pants right there. They caught me by surprise.” Rue was booked into the local jail, where he spent the rest of Thursday and much of Friday behind bars as his frantic wife worked to pull together the $25,000 bail.

The agents of the CSLB’s Fraud Team are old hands at “stings” such as the one that netted Don Rue. “They’ve been doing this for many, many years, and they’ve got it down pat,” explains Pamela Mares, a spokesperson for the Board. “Even if he [Rue] innocently bumbled into this, I’d still have questions. We’ve been letting people know we’re out there.”

Rue swears he never offered a bid, but Mares says the entire conversation was recorded And the CSLB’s evidence is also likely to include Rue’s second flyer, with the potentially damning words: “Licensed – Bonded – Insured.”

“He [the agent] put the flyer down in front of me and says, ‘It says you’re licensed, bonded and insured,'” Rue remembers being told. “'You can’t put out a flyer like this because you’re not a licensed contractor here, and this says you are.'” Rue says he didn’t argue at the time—"not when I got handcuffs on"—but that he believes he was hoodwinked by an overzealous investigator.

“That’s something he should be trying in court,” the Board’s Pamela Mares says. Rue fully agrees, saying he feels strongly that he did nothing illegal by simply making “inquiries” about the potential for work in the charred subdivisions. He also resents actions by Nevada’s contractors board trying to convict him in the public mind before he’s been tried (see “Upfront").

“Obviously, we’re not going to plea bargain this,” Rue says firmly. “If I plea bargain this, I’m still a scumbag.” The man folks call “Rooster” adds, “They done it wrong, and they ruffled my tail feathers.”