HOLMES BEACH -- A local Realtor lost his license to practice in Florida after complaints about his dealings in his beach property rental agency.
The State of Florida yanked former Manatee Realtor Mike Carleton's license Thursday after investigating a three-count complaint related to a $10,000 escrow deposit paid to Carleton in 2012 for a property at 106 55th St., Holmes Beach.
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation's real estate division accused Carleton of failing to place the escrow deposit with his registered employer, Coast Line Realtors, and of placing it instead into an account belonging to Coast Line Accomodations, his beach property rental agency and another Carleton-controlled company.
The second count accused Carleton of "dishonest dealings and or a breach of trust by failing to return the escrow deposit" to Harold E. Smith on demand, "and by failing without legal justification to return the escrow deposit in a timely manner," and the third of "obstructing or hindering an investigation," by failing to provide documentation requested by the state.
The FDBP fined Carleton $1,500 and costs of $1,082.40, suspended his Realtor's license outright for a year and thereafter put his license "on probation" pending his compliance with various department requirements.
It was not the only time Carleton was accused of dishonest dealings.
Last April, when retired Massachusetts utility worker Jack Doran and his wife, Dorothy, were surfing the Web looking for a monthly rental for their annual winter visit to Manatee's barrier islands, they came across Carleton's website for his Anna Maria post office box-based business Coast Line Accommodations.
The couple viewed photos for a three-bed, two-bath duplex unit with a pool at 134 50th Street and sent Carleton $5,000 in two installments last year for the March 2013 rental.
"Days before we were to leave for Florida, we got a phone message from Carleton stating that there was a pool leak and since it would take four to five weeks to repair the home's foundation, so the unit was unavailable," said Jack Doran.
Doran tried to reach Carleton several times to no avail, leaving messages which were never returned.
After scrambling to make other rental arrangements on Anna Maria, Doran called Carleton repeatedly for a refund. Doran says he "finally reached the Realtor," and was promised the check "was already in the mail" in February. When it did not arrive, Doran contacted local authorities in
cluding Holmes Beach Police Det. Brian Hall, and Carol Whitmore, a Manatee County Commissioner and chair of the Tourist Development Council.
After arriving in Manatee County, Doran also checked on the property he was originally supposed to rent, Doran said that the renter in a smaller unit in the duplex told him that the larger "unit had been rented continually since at least December and that there was no problem with the duplex's pool, or foundation."
Still no call from the Realtor.
It's a familiar story to the property owners, Judith and Stephen Laughead, also Massachusetts residents who used Carleton as their rental agent and property manager for several years until they recently "fired him." The couple, who built the duplex in 1994 for about $250,000, say that Carleton owes them about $12,000, but they have been unable to reach him.
Josh Nunez, another disgruntled 134 50th St. vacation renter from Iowa, filed a complaint last June with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reporting that "Coast Line Accommodations and Realtors," had "stolen from us" by not refunding a $500 security deposit.
"We have attempted to contact the property manager, Mike, but have not had success in getting him to answer," Nunez wrote.
On September 24, 2012, the stamped-signature reply from FDACS' Regulatory Specialist Rose Rucker-Brown informed Nunez that the "Division of Consumer Services, Bureau of Mediation and Enforcement has attempted to mediate your complaint against this business. Unfortunately, the business has refused to cooperate, and we are unable to assist you further." Nunez was informed the state was "closing your complaint [marked] "Closed Unsatisfactorily."
After the Bradenton Herald left a message for Carleton on Wednesday afternoon at about 4:30 p.m., USPS records show he express-mailed a $5,000 cashier's check to the Dorans in Marion, Mass., from the Bradenton post office at 5:37 p.m. The check arrived in Massachusetts Thursday afternoon.
Carleton returned a Herald reporter's calls Thursday morning from somewhere in the Bahamas, "where [he] was delivering a boat for a client." He referred to the various complaints filed against him, as "a witch hunt."
"Everyone is anti-weekly or short-term rentals on Anna Maria." He denied owing the homeowners "anything."
Judy Laughead responded, "How dare he say that he does not owe us any money? He has had a tenant in our house for three months and we have not seen a penny," adding that after repeated attempts to get him to deposit funds, he said he would get to the bank Feb. 22. "Needless to say, nothing yet!"
Whitmore said Thursday that "this matter is in no way a "witch hunt" regarding dislike for short-term rentals on Anna Maria Island.
"As chair of the Tourist Development Council, my role is to assure that our visitors have a good experience visiting Manatee County. When we see a trend of complaints that accommodations are being double-booked or the deposits are not being returned, we must take action," she said. "I am a resident on Anna Maria Island since 1969 and welcome visitors to the island and our county and expect them to have a good experience."
Elliott Falcione, Manatee County Convention And Visitors Bureau executive director, declined to comment on the matter, and the Florida Realtors confirmed that Carleton is not a current member.
Holmes Beach Police Detective Sgt. Brian Hall, who had originally received the Dorans' complaint, said Thursday "I've got more complaints on Mr. Carleton, probably around 10."
While declining to discuss specifics, Hall said that Carleton "has been sending out contracts, collecting money and a lot of times people are getting the runaround that the place isn't available.
"They're getting called shortly before they're supposed to come down and get an excuse about it being double-booked or not available because of some type of damage to the property and people are having a hard time getting their money back," Hall said. "There are some other circumstances on some where I'm looking at criminal cases."
The Holmes Beach Police Department has seen "a big influx of complaints," against Coast Line and "word of mouth has gotten out to a lot of people who have made arrangements with him. Complaints on him before have always been civil issues, but now it's kind of snowballed into having a whole bunch of cases."
Part of the problem, Hall said, is that "everyone is from out of state. The owners of places are out of state too. Unfortunately it's a slow process to get things moving."
When asked about Coast Line's status as a business operating from an Anna Maria post office box, Anna Maria city clerk Anna Baird said that "Anna Maria does not issue business licenses, but it's something the commission is trying to get their arms around."
A Better Business Bureau review of "Coastline Accommodations" gave the business an "F" rating, reporting seven complaints in the last three years, failure to respond to two complaints, insufficient background information and lack of response to BBB requests.
Carlton said he is returning to Manatee from the Bahamas on Friday and that he has called Det. Hall "at least three times."
The company Web site address www.coastlineaccommodations.com, is shown as available for purchase by site provider www.GoDaddy.com
Carlton's other website www.coastlinerealtors.com remains "registered" but its homepage is blank.
-- Herald reporter Elizabeth Johnson contributed to this report.
Stephen Frater, Herald senior business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095.