The owner of Salt River Solar in Arizona was sent to prison and hundreds of his customers were released from their lease with the company because fraud was so rampant. Problems were reported statewide involving equipment that was paid for and never installed, equipment that did not work, and lack of promised service.
Judge voids hundreds of solar leases in Arizona
Ryan Randazzo, The Republic | azcentral.com
Published 10:50 p.m. MT June 22, 2015
Fraud was so rampant at a now-defunct rooftop-solar-installation company in Surprise that the owner is not only serving a five-year prison term, but a judge has released hundreds of customers from their leases with the company.
Michael Allen Fricker, 55, owned Salt River Solar and Wind, which installed rooftop solar arrays throughout Arizona.
Fricker was sentenced last month to five years in prison by Pima County Superior Court Judge Casey McGinley of Tucson, who also released 1,157 customers from their leases.
Most of those customers never saw their solar panels installed, even though many had paid deposits. But 344 customers who did receive installations are among those released from their leases, court records say. It’s unclear whether any have been making monthly lease payments or if they paid leases up-front, whether they stopped paying when the company went out of business two years ago.
“This person was a serial financial predator,” said Ryan Anderson, director of communications for the Attorney General’s Office, which worked with the FBI on the case. “Mr. Fricker was engaged in a pattern of fraud that extended beyond his activities in Tucson.”
Anderson said the Attorney General’s Office was flooded with complaints statewide for problems involving equipment that was paid for but never installed, equipment that did not work properly, and customers who did not receive promised service.
Salt River Solar and Wind ceased operations in 2013 after the Registrar of Contractors revoked its license, but the Attorney General’s Office and the FBI continued their investigation.
Public records suggest Salt River Solar and Wind installed about 500 leased solar arrays in SRP and APS territories from 2009 to 2012, and hundreds of additional systems were canceled in 2012 as the company ran into trouble.
Some Tucson Electric Power customers could be eligible for restitution because Fricker’s activities in that utility’s territory were what the AG’s Office and the FBI targeted for prosecution.
Fricker required at least 25 TEP customers to pay him both an up-front deposit and the value of the TEP rebate they would get for the solar setup, with the promise they would get the rebate when it was paid, according to a criminal investigation by the Tucson office of the FBI’s Phoenix division.
But when TEP paid those rebates, totaling thousands of dollars in most cases, Fricker never paid it back to the customers.
Fricker was indicted on multiple felony charges in January 2014. On Oct. 29, he was convicted of fraudulent schemes and artifices, and illegally conducting an enterprise. He agreed to pay up to $1 million in restitution.
He could have avoided prison, but the FBI found Fricker violating a term of his plea agreement by marketing solar products in California, court records say.
The court revoked Fricker’s release conditions and ordered him held at the Pima County Jail pending sentencing. On May 18, McGinley sentenced Fricker to prison.
“That’s where he needs to be,” said Carol Girvan of Tucson. “We are on a long list of people that have been swindled by Mr. Fricker.”
Girvan and her husband, Paul, paid Fricker’s company $17,800 in 2011 for a solar system. Fricker agreed to repay them $15,500 from TEP when the utility paid the rebate on their solar panels.
The panels were installed, though far behind schedule. TEP paid the money to Fricker, but he never paid the couple.
“When you are a senior citizen, and a veteran like my husband, this is a life savings for us that we will never recoup,” Girvan said.
Her neighbor is even worse off, Girvan said, because the neighbor paid Fricker but never saw the solar system installed, she said.
The Girvans can’t collect on the service agreement they were promised because the company is defunct.
“If anything happens to the panels, now they are our responsibility,” she said. “You feel like you are a victim twice.”
Salt River Solar and Wind also had problems with a federal tax-credit program, which is likely the reason the company struggled financially.
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, developers were offered grants to cover 30 percent of the cost of solar installations. Normally, developers get a 30 percent tax credit, but the cash grants were meant to kick-start the industry during the economic downturn.
Program rules required developers to complete installations before they could apply for reimbursement. But funding was not guaranteed, and even after systems were built, the government delayed approval of some applications and denied others.
U.S. Treasury records indicate that Salt River Solar and Wind was paid for systems that were never installed. It also was rejected or denied payment for some systems that were placed in service.
Many customers paid their leases up-front, so releasing them from the contract won’t save them any money.
That is the case with Richard Moon. He and his wife own the Moonlight Manor assisted-living facility in Surprise.
They paid about $60,000 up-front for a solar lease with Salt River Solar and Wind.
Moon said the installation took longer than expected, and that the company never delivered the software promised that would help track the electricity production of the system.
He also said that because the company went out of business, he had to call in another company to perform about $500 of maintenance that should have been done by Salt River Solar and Wind.
Potential victims of Salt River Solar and Wind are encouraged to contact Amy Bocks with the Attorney General’s Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Claims must be submitted to the court by Aug. 14.
Michael Fricker and his wife, Theresa, also were accused in a civil lawsuit in 2012 of committing fraud, and a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ordered them to pay more than $265,000 plus court costs and attorney’s fees.
Court records also show that in 2000, Fricker was convicted in Oregon on a misdemeanor charge of writing a bad check and a felony charge of forgery. Records show he was sentenced to two years’ probation.