Attorneys for retired Durham superior court judge Jim Hardin and a Guilford County couple confirmed this week that both parties agreed to dismiss complaints they had filed in the Bull City’s superior court.
For the Greensboro couple, Joseph Wooten and Erica Bishop, Hardin’s decision to drop his lawsuit means they are no longer on the hook for nearly a quarter of a million dollars to the legal titan who evicted them from the basement of a building he owns and manages on Ninth Street.
“We couldn’t move,” Wooten said about the sum of money Hardin demanded.
Wooten and Bishop invested tens of thousands of dollars to transform the basement of the historic Couch Building at 714 Ninth Street into the Bull City Selfie Museum, a photo studio that featured more than 20 photo booths before Hardin evicted them in February of last year.
Last week, Wooten and Bishop signed an agreement with Hardin that dismissed their owing “overdue rent and liquidated damages in the total amount of $237,960.92.” “We are extremely satisfied with the outcome of the case,” Wooten told the INDY.
The agreement signed by Hardin and the Guilford County couple was not yet publicly available on Monday. A clerk in the downtown Durham superior court’s civil division said the agreement has not yet been fully processed in the court’s electronic system.
Hardin’s attorney, J. Gray Wilson of Durham, told the INDY this week that both parties agreed to drop their claims against each other.
It was on September 8, 2021, that Wooten and Bishop signed a lease and spent close to $250,000 to open the Bull City Selfie Museum in the Couch Building basement.
As the INDY previously reported, Wooten and Bishop say that Hardin forcibly evicted them on February 8, 2022, for nonpayment of rent.
Wooten and Bishop filed a countersuit in April contesting Hardin’s claim and stated that they were unable to open the business because of the construction company’s failure to obtain a building permit from the City of Durham’s inspections department.
Then, Hardin rented the place by early fall to tenants who used the couple’s designs and business plan to open the Red Carpet Selfie Studio. City inspection records show that the basement still does not have a building permit that would allow the space to open for business.
Wooten and Bishop are satisified with their agreement with Hardin.
But now they want justice. They’re moving forward with litigation against a contractor and his associate who did construction work on the space, Bishop told the INDY.
Last year Michael Moore, the owner of the construction company that transformed the basement of the two-story building into a selfie studio, filed a complaint seeking nearly $40,000 in damages from the couple.
On March 23, Wooten and Bishop’s attorney, Garrett Davis of Durham, filed a 62-page complaint in superior court that claims Moore and an associate, Stephen M. Baumgardner, violated federal racketeering laws. They say Moore’s Construction Company and related enterprises are corrupt and have been for years.
Durham attorney David Lewis, who has represented Moore in the past, told the INDY that he expects to represent Moore again in this civil case.
“He hasn’t been served yet,” Lewis told the INDY about the complaint, “and we’ll make an appropriate comment when the time comes.”
The Guilford County couple’s lawsuit names Moore and his businesses—Moore’s Commercial and Residential Development LLC, and Moore’s Construction Company, LLC, formerly known as Baumgardner Investments, LLC Construction—along with Baumgardner.
Wooten and Bishop claim that Moore and Baumgardner violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970 that is primarily used to target organized crime. In addition to violating the RICO Act, Wooten and Bishop claim that Moore and Baumgardner engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices through a “pattern and practice of submitting false certification to state licensing authorities for the purpose of maintaining general contractor licenses,” according to the complaint.
Baumgardner this week told the INDY that questions from this writer marked the first time he had even heard about the complaint.
Davis states in the court affidavit that he discovered the alleged corruption after Hardin evicted Wooten and Bishop, the couple lost the $140,000 they had paid Moore “to build out the Bull City Selfie Museum (BCSM).”
Davis says that no one from Moore’s Construction … ever submitted a building permit [to the City of Durham] before BCSM was evicted on February 8, 2022.”
At the crux of Wooten and Bishop’s contention is that Moore and Baumgardner were operating a corrupt enterprise.
Under North Carolina’s general statutes, the recipient of a general contractor’s license must be a responsible managing member or an employee of the business, according to the lawsuit.
Davis states “Moore has never passed the general contractor’s exam, nor has he personally gone through all of the other application steps a licensed contractor must [go]through.”
Davis contends that Moore and Baumgardner “reached an agreement.” Baumgardner would take the general contractor’s license exam, obtain the license, and eventually become a “qualifier” and “responsible managing member” for his construction business.
“And less than 12 weeks after being granted a general contractor’s license on February 25, 2014, Baumgardner Investments, LLC became known as Moore’s Construction, LLC,” Davis states in the complaint.
Then Baumgardner moved to Texas.
“Baumgardner has been a permanent resident and registered voter in the state of Texas since November of 2014,” Davis states in the complaint.
Wooten and Bishop’s lawsuit includes Baumgardner’s voter registration record, which states that he lives in Pearland, Texas. Baumgardner ran for a seat on the Brazoria County, Texas, school board. According to a candidate’s application he filed for a May 6 election. He wrote that he’s lived in Texas for seven years and eight months.
Baumgardner told the INDY that although he has a permanent address in Texas, he spends “more than half my time here in North Carolina, and has for many years.”
“I was born and raised here,” says Baumgardner, who adds that he ran for the school board in Brazoria County as an “absentee candidate” and “lost terribly.”
“I’m never there,” he explains. “It’s very hard to win a race when you’re never there. My wife lives there, but my businesses here require me to be more here than there.”
Davis states in the complaint that Baumgardner “annually submits false certification to the state’s general contractor’s board to maintain Moore’s Construction LLC’s license.”
“By law a ‘responsible managing member’ or employee means a person who is engaged in the work of the applicant a minimum of 20 hours per week or a majority of the hours operated by the applicant, whichever is less,” says Davis. He later added that it is doubtful Baumgardner could have met that requirement while living thousands of miles away in Texas.
“We never met Baumgardner,” Bishop says. “Joseph and I were on-site everyday for the upfit of our business and Baumgardner was not there.”
Davis, in the complaint, says Moore and Baumgardner concocted a sham qualifier scheme that enables Baumgardner to receive kickbacks from companies that find it cheaper to do business with him instead of hiring an on-site general contractor to monitor their work.
“The economics behind this arrangement is simple,” Davis states. “Upon information and belief, Baumgardner is provided a kickback-like payment by Moore (as well as the owners of the firm like ProMark Construction in Durham and Trinity Consulting and Development in Guilford County) each year Mr. Baumgardner allows those companies to use his name and number to maintain a general contractor’s license.”
He later adds that someone was “illegally selling their name and credentials to not one, not two, at least three corporations for the express purpose of allowing these corporations to maintain occupational license is a quintessential racket.”
As the INDY previously reported, Frank Weisner, executive director of the NC Licensing Board for General Contractors, confirmed in March that Moore’s Construction Company is under investigation for potential violations of the state statutes concerning general contractors.
Curtis Huff, an investigator with the state licensing board told the INDY that the agency still has an active investigation going on.
Davis added that under state law any construction work over $30,000 requires a general contracting license.
“For jobs under $30,000, with hard work, a little bit of elbow grease, a truck, and a cell phone, you can be a handyman,” Davis says in a phone call to the INDY. “Which is all Michael Moore has, a truck and a cell phone, and he’s taking on jobs for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at email@example.com.
Support independent local journalism.
Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.