A lawsuit filed by the recently retired commander of U.S. Central Command and his wife against privatized housing companies and their contractors shows the problems “are pervasive among all levels, from generals and admirals all the way down to E1,” said Crystal Cornwall, executive director of the Safe Military Housing Initiative.
“It gives validation to all of our young enlisted and young officers who have complained about these housing issues for a long time, and have suffered from some these severe repercussions,” said Cornwall, a Marine Corps wife.
Retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel and his wife Michele are suing five companies, including the owner of privatized housing at MacDill Air Force Base, accusing them of negligence in a fire that destroyed virtually all of their belongings. The lawsuit was first reported by the Tampa Bay Times.
The Votels lost “irreplaceable and unique furnishings, household goods, art, clothing, jewelry and other items,” according to the lawsuit filed in circuit court in Hillsborough County, Florida, where Tampa is located.
The fire broke out in their home on Jan. 28, 2017. The Votels were living in temporary lodging at the time, after being forced to leave their home during restoration work when a water leak was discovered in the slab of their home in November, 2016. Except for the essentials they needed in temporary lodging and for travel, virtually all of their possessions remained in their home. The Votels accumulated those possessions during his nearly 39 years of service. He retired from CENTCOM at the end of March. The lawsuit was filed April 18.
The 2017 fire was caused by an electrical failure, after a nail was driven through a live electrical line, and fused to the wire, according to an investigation completed by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the Tampa Fire Department, the lawsuit stated. The nail caused the electrical line to arc, and ignited the wood frame. The damage to the Votels’ quarters was so severe that the structure had to be totally demolished, according to the lawsuit.
Cornwall said that it’s her perception that the general’s lawsuit “gives more credibility to what these families have been saying in terms of negligence and poor maintenance.” She said she finds it interesting that he waited until after he retired to file the lawsuit.
Cornwall was among the military spouses who testified Feb. 13 before the Senate Armed Services Committee about problems military families have had with mold, vermin, water leaks and other issues. Some problems have arisen because of defects in construction.
The Votel lawsuit will hopefully set a precedent for military families who find that their last recourse in getting help for some of their financial losses they attribute to privatized housing issues, said Amie Norquist, whose husband is a Green Beret soldier stationed at MacDill.
“I’m thankful they are doing this because it’s a precedent for other families,” she said, adding that she hopes the Votels “will be able to gain some peace back in their lives and enjoy their retirement.”
The Votels’ lawsuit, said Norquist, is an encouragement for other families.
It’s “a way that we can see there’s hope for things we can do for our families,” Norquist said.
The Norquists moved off base because “we couldn’t trust that our home would be safe,” she said, and were concerned about sickness in the family they attributed to mold.
She estimates their financial losses at between $40,000 to $50,000, after having to dispose of mold-contaminated furniture, mattresses and other items, and paying medical copays for numerous doctor visits. All of her four children have had medical issues, she said. Her husband was pulled from deployments as a Green Beret because of the family health issues, she said.
“It’s amazing [the Votels] have to go to the level of filing a lawsuit to actually be reimbursed for their losses,” Norquist said, adding that she and her husband are also considering that as a last resort for reimbursement for their lost property.
The Votels’ lawsuit was filed in the Hillsborough County, Florida, Circuit Court. Information was not available on the value of the belongings the Votels lost. In order to be under the jurisdiction of the circuit court, the lawsuit must involve amounts of more than $15,000.
Votel declined comment about the lawsuit.
Defendants named in the lawsuit are AMC East Communities, owners of the privatized housing at MacDill AFB, and Michaels Management Services, Inc., the property manager, as well as companies that were reportedly contracted to do the work, Damage Recovery, LLC, Fuller Construction Group, LLC, and Dri-Ez.
Officials at AMC East Communities couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Ron Hansen, president of Michaels Management Services, said the contractors weren’t working for Michaels, as the property manager, but for the owners, because the water leak had reportedly been a warranty issue. “I certainly sympathize with the Votels. I know it’s a terrible loss to lose those memories,” Hansen said.
Officials at Damage Recovery couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. Fuller Construction Group’s phone has been disconnected, and is reportedly out of business.
According to Votel’s attorney, Andra T. Dreyfus, defendant Dri-Ez has been dropped from the case.
The Votel’s house also had issues with mold associated with the water leak, according to a story in the Tampa Bay Times written as Votel was retiring from CentCom. That issue is not part of the lawsuit. Families at MacDill and a number of other military installations have complained about mold and other problems in their housing.
During Votel’s military career, he and his wife traveled the world and accumulated unique, irreplaceable and invaluable items. Their loss included family heirlooms and children’s and family memorabilia, as well as a lifetime’s collection of fine books, jewelry, china, cookware, glassware, flatware, table and bed linens, silver, crystal, a house full of furniture, shoes, clothing, accessories and other items. furnishings, household goods, art, clothing, jewelry and other items,” according to the lawsuit.
Michele Votel is also an experienced collector of fine art and antiques, according to the lawsuit.
Some of destroyed items were gifts from many world leaders, as well as unique items of great historical and cultural significance.
Votel has also received many commemorative items from the men and women he served with to honor his leadership, according to the lawsuit. “All of these items held great meaning to [Votel], and can never be replaced.
“Some of these people lost their lives in service to our country.”
Military Times managing editor Howard Altman contributed to this article.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.