CBC Investigates

'Charming' businessman owing nearly $100K in court judgments still advertising online

There are 16 small claims court judgments against Steven Brittain totalling almost $100,000.

Steven Brittain admits he made 'bad decisions' but says he did it for his family

Businessman Steve Brittain owes almost $100,000 in small claims judgments from unhappy customers and others. (LinkedIn)

A Nova Scotia contractor who specializes in construction, diving and underwater projects owes nearly $100,000 in unpaid court judgments, a CBC News investigation has found.

Steven Brittain, who operates under the business name Steven Brittain Construction and Diving, continues to advertise online, although he removed a Kijiji ad for his Chester-based business last week after being contacted by CBC News.

In all, CBC found at least 16 small claims judgments — primarily for unfinished work and supplies purchased on credit — against Brittain and his company since 2009. Brittain has acknowledged to CBC that the facts and numbers are true.

CBC has spoken to seven of those owed money.

'He seemed like a very nice guy'

"I'm disgusted and that's the best way I can put it," said Clary Coolen, Queensland resident and Hubbards fire chief, of his experience with Brittain, a man he calls "a con artist."

Coolen said he was approached at work in October 2015 by Brittain, who said he had heard that Coolen wanted to build a garage.

"He seemed like a very nice guy. He seemed like an intelligent individual who knew what he was talking about," Coolen said.

Brittain asked for an $8,000 advance on the $35,000 garage to cover permits and the purchase of some materials. Coolen provided it, making sure Brittain signed a document acknowledging the advance. Brittain hired a company to dig the area in preparation for placing footings, but then the work stopped and Coolen said the excuses started.

Many excuses, some untrue

The two communicated primarily through text and Coolen has pages of conversations between the two.

"I was told he was busy on other projects. I was told he was going through a divorce. I was told he injured himself, the weather was to blame, basically any excuse to prolong the whole thing," Coolen said.

Brittain also told him he was waiting for permit approval from the Halifax Regional Municipality, but Coolen says when he checked he discovered no permits had been requested.

Brittain also told him there was a delay in the delivery of trusses from a Liverpool business. Coolen says when he called the business, he was told the trusses had never been ordered.

Hubbards fire Chief Clary Coolen has a small claims judgment of more than $6,500 against Steve Brittain for a deposit to build his garage. (CBC)

"Everything this individual was telling me was a lie," Coolen said.

His frustration reached its peak when the contractor hired by Brittain to dig the area in preparation for footings came back and demanded payment, saying Brittain had not paid him. Coolen said he paid the bill.

Brittain became defensive when Coolen pressed him to return his deposit. In one text he said he "couldn't commit business suicide" by refunding Coolen's money.

Then he questioned why Coolen couldn't wait for his refund.

"If you've got all the cash for the job as you say then what's the harm in waiting a few days as long as you see it coming back steadily?" Brittain asked in one text.

Coolen said Brittain was treating him like "I'm his bank."

After several months, Coolen took the matter to small claims court in May 2016 and won a judgment of $6,509.35 against Brittain and his company. But he has been unable to collect a penny.

Subcontractor not paid

Mike Gregg, the owner of RMI Marine Ltd. in Eastern Passage, is just as frustrated as Coolen.

"I am in a long line of many people that have not been paid, or for lack of a better term, have been ripped off by Steve Brittain," Gregg said.

Gregg's company was hired by Brittain in June 2014. Brittain's company was awarded a contract by the province's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal to do work on the Tancook Island ferry. Brittain subcontracted the work to RMI.

Mike Gregg's company, RMI Marine, was hired by Steve Brittain to work on the Tancook Island ferry. Brittain was paid by the province for the work, but he never paid RMI Marine, which now has a judgment of more than $14,000 against Brittain. (CBC)

Brittain was paid by the province but he never paid RMI Marine, and at one point told Gregg the province had not paid him. Gregg said he confirmed with the department that Brittain had been paid and confronted him with what he calls the lie.

"Then the other stories started," Gregg said. "'I will pay you in instalments. I will try to do this.' Then it came to a point where he said he had invested my money."

Gregg spent a year trying to get paid and then took Brittain to small claims court, where he won a judgment of $14,717.50. But he, too, has been unable to collect.

Brittain has a photo of the Tancook Island ferry on his business website as an example of the work his company does.

Steve Brittain promotes work on the Tancook Island ferry on his business website. He has been ordered to pay more than $14,000 to RMI Marine, a company he hired to work on the ferry but never paid.

Gregg said the most frustrating part is that Brittain is still advertising and doing business.

"I'm looking at his web page saying, 'If he's still in business he must be making money, so why doesn't he pay me? Why does the province let somebody like that continue to do business knowing full well he's got this record of non-payment?'"

The website for Steven Brittain's company says it does "top-quality residential construction" and "excellent service" in the marine industry. It also says the company's goal is "100 per cent customer satisfaction."

RCMP refuse to take complaints

Coolen and at least one other person did go to Chester RCMP to lay a criminal complaint against Brittain, but both say they were told it was a "civil" matter.

Many people have sought execution orders to garnishee Brittain's wages and bank accounts, but most have received nothing. Four people, including Peter McLaughlin, have managed to recover a portion of their claims.

In McLaughlin's case, he received about half of his approximately $17,000 judgment. Others have received much less.

McLaughlin, who described Brittain as "a charming fellow," told CBC he simply continued to push Brittain for a refund and was paid the money over a period of time.

Troubled financial past

Steven Brittain Construction and Diving is not licensed to do business in the province. Registration for Steven Brittain Construction was revoked for non-payment in June 1998.

According to a June 2017 email from Bridgewater's acting sheriff to one of Brittain's victims, Brittain filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and was granted an absolute discharge in 2009.

One of the small claims judgments against him resulted in eviction from the place he was renting in Chester in January and an order to pay $1,140 in back rent. He still uses that address on his business website.

Steve Brittain Construction and Diving has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau.

Brittain says he's 'truly sorry'

In an emailed statement, Brittain acknowledged his debts, saying, "The facts and numbers, I'm ashamed to admit, are true."

However, he says, explaining the underlying facts behind all those numbers is not so simple.

He admits he made "bad decisions" but says he did it for his family.

"I would give anything to undo what's happened, but now all I can do is own it, accept it, learn from it, and slowly rebuild everything from the beginning," he said.

Brittain said he is "truly sorry" for all the hurt he's brought to everyone.

"I hope someday things will balance out, and I will be able to make amends to the people that were affected by my actions."

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.