A local real estate firm is looking optimistically to the future as one of its co-founders, who had faced felony indictments related to his work as a contractor and home renovator, reached a plea deal last week that results in those charges being dismissed.
Bobby Hicks, one of the namesakes of Carytown brokerage Bobby+April, struck a deal with the commonwealth attorney’s office in which he pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of contracting without a license, relinquished his latest license and agreed to pay $700 in restitution to former client Rhonda Lee, whose complaints against Hicks were at the center of prosecutors’ case against him.
As a result of the deal, four of the five felony indictments levied against Hicks last May were dismissed, three weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial. The fifth indictment, of larceny of property with intent to sell or distribute, was the basis for the deal and was amended Thursday to reflect Hicks’ plea of engaging in contracting without the proper class of license.
In an interview Friday, Hicks maintained he was licensed at all times that he was doing work for Lee and characterized the larceny charge as a dispute stemming from a miscommunication over flooring that was removed from her job site.
But after 10 months of what Bobby+April co-founder April Straus described as Hicks living “under this cloud,” Hicks said he was willing to enter the guilty plea and surrender his contracting license – the last of three he held under different business names until recently – contending that he planned to relinquish it anyway.
“I have no interest in ever contracting again,” said Hicks, whose plea nullifies his license under Catalyst Construction RVA LLC. Licenses under two of his other entities – Renew Renovations LLC and Renew Renovations RVA LLC – expired in November and December, respectively.
“This had to get behind me, because it’s been pretty devastating,” Hicks said.
“By saying that, these charges go away, I get to go on with my life.”
Lee’s civil suit against Hicks remained active as of Monday, and two other civil suits against Hicks or his companies have been filed by other former clients in recent months. Another suit that had been active for more than two years, filed by Beth and Richard Kelly, was settled earlier this year ahead of a scheduled trial.
While those civil legal challenges remain, Hicks and Straus – domestic partners as well as business collaborators – plan to put the criminal charges behind them by moving forward with Bobby+April, with Hicks remaining involved as a real estate agent. Hicks, who is in the process of selling his stake in the business to Straus as part of his bankruptcy proceedings, said he recently reactivated his real estate license.
They’re also resuming the brokerage’s packaged offering for clients to buy, sell and renovate homes – the latter of which was the arm of the business that was previously Hicks’ primary role with the company. In an email to clients and supporters last week, the company said it would pull from “a select group of qualified sub-contractors” for remodeling and other construction work.
Plea deal reached
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Bauer said Hicks’ willingness to relinquish his contracting license was a consideration in the plea agreement, which he said was reached after considering additional information received since the indictments were levied against Hicks in May.
“One term of the agreement was that he would not engage as a paid contractor or subcontractor from this point forward,” Bauer said. “If we receive a report that he has done any paid contracting or subcontracting work, we would look to see if that puts him in violation of the agreement and possibly take the necessary legal steps.”
Bauer took on the case with fellow assistant CA Alison Martin after Sau Chan, the prosecutor who brought the original indictments to a grand jury, exited the office last year. John Jung, who supervises the office’s financial crimes cases, said last fall that Chan left the office for another job.
Bauer would not go into details about negotiations that led to the plea agreement or the information considered since the indictments were levied. Hicks was represented in the case by Ed Riley of Riley & Wells.
While the indictments reference Lee, the former Hicks client who once was an agent with Bobby+April, Bauer said the indictments were not driven by Lee’s civil suit, nor was the plea deal influenced by the recent settlement reached in the Kellys’ suit.
“We don’t look at the civil cases at all,” Bauer said. “We looked at facts independently both at the beginning of the investigation and as the case proceeded, and I think we did what seemed to be a reasonable disposition of the matter.”
‘Nothing criminal here’
Hicks described the indictments as stemming directly from Lee’s civil suit, arguing that their dispute could have been resolved without involving criminal prosecutors.
In that suit, which was filed in September 2017, Lee claims Hicks did not complete her renovation project on time, performed unsatisfactory work and misrepresented his work when pulling funds for construction from an account Lee had with TowneBank. The suit alleges breach of contract and fraud, and seeks at least $75,000 in damages.
Bauer said the larceny charge linked to the plea deal related specifically to events that occurred on the job site on Sept. 10, 2016. Hicks described the issue as flooring that was removed due to a miscommunication with a subcontractor, though he chalked up the larger dispute to change orders that he said Lee requested but would not sign off on.
Attempts to reach Lee through her attorney, John Taylor with FloranceGordonBrown, were unsuccessful Friday.
“If the client wants me to do something that’s not in the contract, with a significant change that involves more money, I’m required by DPOR to get a signed change order,” Hicks said.
“What I should have done is declared her in breach of contract and just walked away, and none of this would have happened,” he said. “No one should be able to use the criminal justice system to bolster what is a civil case at best. I kept saying let’s drop this, let’s settle this in civil court, because there’s nothing criminal here.”
In addition to Hicks’ indictments, a felony charge was brought against Ralph Ross, an accountant who Hicks described as his office manager. Court records show prosecutors abandoned their case against Ross in December.
‘I blame the system’
In the intervening months, Hicks said he’s had to disassociate himself from Bobby+April while also proceeding with his personal bankruptcy case, which he said was necessitated by legal costs stemming from the Kellys’ lawsuit that was active for more than two years.
Richard Kelly, a co-founder and former CEO of local food startup Nutriati, confirmed the suit was settled in January but would not discuss it on the record, describing the settlement as confidential. The Kellys’ suit, which alleged multiple breaches of contract and violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and Virginia Real Estate Board relating to work performed on their Fan residence, had sought upwards of $250,000 in damages.
Hicks said a nondisclosure agreement prevented him from discussing the settlement with the Kellys, but he did describe the dispute as similar to Lee’s.
While he said he harbors no ill will toward the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, Hicks said he blames the legal system, which he said allowed him no chance to defend himself against the allegations that led to the indictments. He said the indictments followed 10 months of investigation in which he was never contacted, and he said it wasn’t until recently that he could provide documentation to prosecutors that he said resolved much of the case.
“All of their information came from her,” Hicks said, referring to Lee. “When we finally got to discovery, I was able to show all the documentation that the charges were not true.
“I don’t blame the commonwealth. I blame the system,” Hicks said. “Once you get into the system, it’s hard to get out. … They certainly would not have given me that deal if they knew that there was no case there.”
Hicks said publicity surrounding the criminal charges has impacted his life beyond his business dealings. He said he has finished and sold the last of the houses he was working on, and paid all of his employees, subcontractors and payroll taxes.
“There were three or four months I don’t think I came out of our basement. There were dark times,” he said. “I haven’t been able to leave the state of Virginia in a year.
“The effect that it’s had on our lives, personally, financially – going into restaurants and knowing people are staring at you thinking you’re a criminal and you can’t respond, and I’m just continually being told it’s a process and keep a low profile, knowing I did not do anything wrong.”
More lawsuits filed
While the felony indictments have been dismissed and the Kellys’ suit has been settled, Hicks faces two fresh civil suits filed in recent months.
In November, Michelle Bellinger filed suit against Hicks and Renew Renovations RVA LLC, alleging improper work and misrepresentations made relating to a home on Maplewood Avenue. The suit seeks upwards of $45,000 in damages and is scheduled for a hearing later this week.
And last month, Kyle Kuklinski sued Catalyst Construction RVA LLC, claiming Hicks formed Catalyst because of pending litigation against him and Renew Renovations RVA, and misrepresented to a bank that there were no legal claims against Catalyst. The case also alleges poor workmanship and that Hicks abandoned the project, and seeks $75,000 in damages.
Hicks said he’s not concerned with those lawsuits or Lee’s, noting that his bankruptcy filing puts a stay on them. He said none of the businesses involved remain in existence and his focus is on returning to the Bobby+April fold as an agent.
“It’s in the hands of the insurance company now, and that’s why I paid thousands of dollars for liability insurance over the years,” he said.
Referring to the criminal charges, Hicks said, “This is all behind me, I have nothing bad to say about anybody, and I just want to go forward and have a life.”