Faking it

Phony engineers and architects are relatively rare, but they pose a dangerous problem

  • This is one of the fake professional licenses that Maryland labor investigators say Lawrence D. Novakowski used to obtain a series of positions as an electrical engineer.
This is one of the fake professional licenses that Maryland… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
February 28, 2010|By Lorraine Mirabella | lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Framed professional licenses from three states and a Johns Hopkins University diploma hung on the wall of Lawrence D. Novakowski's office at the firm where he made a six-figure income as an electrical engineer.

But as his bosses, colleagues and clients would find out, the licenses were fake and the diploma likely ordered off the Internet. Novakowski, a 51-year-old Westminster resident, was no engineer, prosecutors now say.

While still rare, instances of employees or contractors passing themselves off as licensed appear to be happening more frequently, perhaps as the recession has driven the unemployed to extremes. State officials say the cases are worrisome because of the potential impact an unlicensed and untrained person could have on the design, construction and upkeep of projects including public buildings, hospitals and schools.

Last week, regulators announced another case in which a Hagerstown man falsely represented himself as an architect and practiced without a license - the third time in less than six months that an investigation by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation has led to criminal charges for alleged impersonations of design professionals in the state.

The recent spate has alarmed state officials. Jeffrey E. Tuer, an investigator in the department's licensing division, said that credential misrepresentations can be as serious as violent crimes.

"This can be just as deadly," Tuer said. "If [buildings or their systems] fail or collapse, they can be more deadly than a mugger on a street with a gun."

Officials with the state labor department, which oversees licensing of workers ranging from plumbers to cosmetologists, declined to identify employers or building owners duped by unlicensed workers, saying doing so would compromise criminal cases. In the three recent cases, including Novakowski's, officials said the defendants didn't jeopardize safety. The other two cases involve people posing as architects, and their designs weren't used, officials said.

Nonetheless, Stanley Botts, the state's commissioner of occupational and professional licensing, said these cases could undercut public confidence in design professionals.

"Incidents of impersonation of licensed professionals have been rare in the past, but we are hearing about more of them," Botts said. "Any time you have people holding themselves out as professionals in a field they are not qualified to be in, you could have extensive damage."

The state doesn't keep detailed statistics on cases stemming from fake licenses or people posing as professionals, but industry and state sources say anecdotally they have seen more of these situations lately. Still, few complaints to occupational and professional licensing boards have landed in court - just 16 civil or criminal cases were filed in the past four fiscal years.

"It used to be very rare, but we're seeing it more frequently," said Bob Mead, executive director of the Maryland Society of Professional Engineers. "It's always very troubling when it happens, and it's very serious."

He speculated that high unemployment has made some job seekers desperate: "People are having a harder time getting jobs."

In the Novakowski case, none of the three engineering firms where he worked was identified in his November indictment, which charges Novakowski with one count of practicing without a license and two counts of counterfeiting a public seal. Even after he was charged, he continued seeking engineering work, according to the Howard County state's attorney's office, which increased his bond as a result. A trial is set for April 19.

When contacted by phone, Novakowski said the Howard County case has been "an embarrassment to my family," but he declined to comment further. Court records show that over the years, he has been convicted of numerous theft charges in Maryland and Tennessee, and faced a $77,850 federal tax lien judgment in June. In the latest case announced by state regulators, Anthony Robert Alongi, 48, of Hagerstown was charged with felony theft, falsely representing himself as an architect and practicing architecture without a license. Alongi is accused of collecting close to $2,000 from a property owner who hired him to design a commercial building renovation in Hagerstown, without knowing he was not licensed.

The third criminal case involves Darren Dewitt Comedy, 50, of Bowie, who was indicted by a Prince George's County grand jury in October on charges of forgery, identity theft, felony theft and practicing architecture without a license.

Comedy is accused of placing the seal of his former college instructor, a licensed architect, on plans submitted to the Prince George's County permits office in February 2009 for a restaurant in Largo. The permits office contacted the licensed architect with questions about the application, and the architect, who had no involvement in the project, contacted the state Board of Architects, which investigated.

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