MAX, N.D. — Robbin Plesuk says anyone confronted with a construction proposition should get it in writing and not be pressured into same-day work.

Plesuk, 67, wishes he’d followed this advice. He is one of five people in McLean County, N.D., who authorities say fell victim to construction fraud that they allege was perpetrated in the past year by Sean Patrick Gorman and others related to a group identifying as “Irish Travellers,” a group that encamps in Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina.

Plesuk farms 7 miles southeast of Max in central North Dakota on a tidy place homesteaded by his wife’s family in 1903. He grew up nearby and worked for telephone companies and farmed on the side before retiring in 2007. His wife, Susan, is a retired elementary teacher and principal.

In 2017, Robbin Plesuk had hired a reputable Bismarck company to put a layer of hot mix asphalt — about 4 inches thick — for about $40,000 on their driveway. It was a big job — 12,000 square feet. The original installers also applied a protective coating for $6,900.

By August 2019, Plesuk noticed some cracks in the asphalt. He phoned the original contractor who said they’d come out and maybe fix the cracks for free. A few weeks went by.

About a year later, a pickup pulled up and two men got out. “They looked sharp — very polite, very nice,” Plesuk recalls of his visitors. They said they had heard the Plesuks needed some work on their asphalt driveway. Plesuk initially assumed they’d talked to his contractor.

In addition to filling cracks, Gorman said they could put on a new black oil-type seal coating. “I was a little reluctant,” Plesuk says, but they said they could do the work right away. He acknowledges it was a mistake not to get a written, firm bid. “They really try to push you along,” he says. “They try to make you make a decision in a hurry.”

Same day deal

The Gormans started spraying by 11 a.m. and were done by 7 p.m. — three men and a pickup spray truck. Afterward, Plesuk told them there was still a “low spot” near the end of his driveway. They came back another day to fill that in.

Plesuk expected to pay under $10,000 but the Gormans handed him a bill for $14,300. He remembers wincing in shock. “I said, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money.’” But he felt he needed to pay it.

He could make the check out to “Patrick Gorman” and label it as anything he wanted — farm, home, whatever, the man said.

Two weeks later, it rained and water again filled that low spot. Plesuk said he tried to call the phone number written on their paperwork. “I left a message and I didn’t get a response.”

Plesuk chalked it up to an education, he says, adding ruefully, “Sometimes an education isn’t cheap.”

Several jurisdictions

Aaron Matties, a detective for the McLean County Sheriff’s Office, has investigated several complaints about individuals associated with Gorman Construction of Minot, N.D. Construction fraud allegations in McLean County led to a number of cases involving the Gormans, although others are involved.

McLean County officials charged Sean Patrick Gorman, 26, and Bartley Gorman Jr., 55, with various felony counts.

Both are charged with illegally conducting Gorman General Contracting as a shell business to conduct a pattern of racketeering, victimizing elderly or vulnerable people using “residential construction fraud” and “at times by means of extortion.”

Both are charged with “exploitation of an eligible adult” meaning someone either over age 65 or having some other impairment. In one case, they deceived an elderly widow, to take $6,700 and did “fraudulent work” for it.

Separately, Sean Patrick Gorman is also charged with attempted theft of property — in one case attempting to steal a vehicle as a down payment for a job not yet done.

A construction fraud and exploiting case against Sean Gorman involves an eligible adult case involves a person who paid $82,000 for siding and roofing in 2012. In 2018 and 2019, Sean Gorman showed up again, with the person writing checks totaling $42,000, for work a construction expert determined was “very poor quality” and needed redoing.

When the story broke about other alleged victims in the local paper, Plesuk recognized Sean Patrick Gorman, as one of the people who had been at his place. “I looked back in my records, and sure enough, the guy’s name that was in the Garrison, N.D., paper was the guy last year.”

Plesuk didn’t call the sheriff, but Matties found Plesuk’s name among the Gormans’ bank records and interviewed him.

Matties says he’s collaborating with the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, and several sheriff’s offices in western North Dakota. Part of the work is tracking down what work was done, who did the work, and whether they had valid construction licenses at any of the jobs. Beyond that, it’s a matter of following the money. Investigators have seized bank records and money assets.

The company uses a post office box in Minot. People with unsatisfactory work have tried in vain to make contact with the company. “We’re continuing to pick up more victims and moving forward to entering those victims, too,” Matties said.

$65,000 question

A man named Gorman first came to Jacqulynn “Jackie” Zotti’s door in the summer of 2017. “They just come up to my house and asked if I wanted my road paved, says Zotti, 57, who lives west of Garrison in central North Dakota. Patrick Gorman said they had some gravel from a previous project they needed to get rid of.

But soon they’d agreed to put asphalt on her long driveway road and back inside a pole-type machine storage shed that had a dirt floor.

Zotti, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, admits she has little experience with construction, but had money for a project after inheriting some oil well income.

Initially, Zotti thought the asphalt job would cost about $15,000. They started working, putting pea gravel into the shed and leveling it, and after a couple of days they said she owed $65,000. Somehow they convinced her they needed to take a horse trailer worth about $20,000 as a partial payment. She agreed to pay the balance — about 45,000 — in installments of $4,000 to $5,000 a month.

And then they disappeared — for two years.

Out the window

In 2019, Sean Gorman, a man she believed was Patrick’s son, talked to her. He said they were going to “fix things up again,” and put in the asphalt, she says. She says she thought it was “warranty work” — completing what they had failed to complete in 2017. More than a dozen workers busied themselves for a couple of days, using hand rakes and machinery. They sprayed the surface of the loose pea rock in the shed with a black coating.

Zotti was working a jigsaw puzzle when Sean Gorman and another man knocked on the door. They said they needed $65,000 again to finish the driveway. “They start demanding my big camper out there, my boat out there, my Camaro,” she recalls. “They said they’ll come with me to Garrison State Bank to make a loan.”

Jackie got angry and started cussing.

As Gorman waited at her living room table, she went into her bedroom and snuck out through a window. She drove to the bank. The banker declined to make a loan but urged her to contact the Realtor who had helped her buy the house. The Realtor gave her a phone number with the attorney general’s consumer fraud phone number.

The Attorney General’s Office contacted Gorman Construction. “Just like that,” Zotti says Patrick Gorman — the father — called to say the whole thing was a misunderstanding. She didn’t owe them another $65,000. Within an hour, they cleared out everything and “boom, they were gone.”

She called the sheriff’s office, which started an investigation.

Zotti says she wants her money back. She urged others who deal with contractors to “do a background check.”

Following the money

Detective Matties said the department is using a lumber company construction specialist who is helping them evaluate the quality and pricing of the jobs involving roofing. They’ve gone to bank accounts and have looked at accounts where checks have been deposited. “We followed the money,” Matties says.

Plesuk says he doesn’t know what to hope for, but acknowledges he would appreciate compensation for what he describes as an “excessive” charge. He doesn’t know what to make of the Irish Traveller connection.

“It’s a little unnerving at times that people go around doing that type of thing,” he says. “It’s almost a bit scary” that it might be an organization.

Matties urges anyone who thinks they’ve been scammed to contact the McLean County Sheriff’s Office at 701-462-8103, or the North Dakota attorney general’s consumer protection number: 800-472-2600.

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