David Ireland was hashing out the deal of a lifetime.

It was November 2013. After months of planning, Ireland had won an audience in Augusta with top-level executives and the board of directors of Summit Natural Gas of Maine.

Summit, in a bid to become one of the largest natural gas utilities in the state, announced plans to spend $350 million over five years to bury hundreds of miles of pipe and connect thousands of new customers a year to its expanding natural gas network over the next decade.

A prolific weatherization contractor who specialized in state-subsidized insulation work, Ireland had already made plans to work with Summit customers. But Summit, looking to streamline its business, suggested he start a home-heating business converting homes to natural gas. Ireland was not a heating contractor, yet his answer was emphatic.

“Whatever (the Summit executives) said, everything and anything, his response was: ‘Yes, yes, yes. I can do it all,’ ” said Frank Pawlendzio, Ireland’s former general manager of operations, who was present at the meeting. “He wanted to get his hands into everything.”

Almost a year later, Dave Ireland Builders abruptly shut down, after taking roughly $71,000 in deposits from 41 customers for heating work that he would never complete. Summit immediately distanced itself from Ireland.

The Howland business’s public collapse was the latest in a string of problems for Summit, raising doubts about whether the company could deliver on promises to bring natural gas to thousands of new customers in Cumberland and Kennebec counties on time.

Last week, the utility declined to answer more than 20 detailed questions about its relationship with Ireland, instead reissuing a statement declaring its commitment to reimbursing customers who lost money.

But Ireland, his former customers and ex-employees said Summit and Ireland were working hand in hand, with each business promoting the other. Summit worked to fit Ireland into its business strategy, funneling work his way, Ireland said. Ireland drew up long-term plans to be a key Summit partner for years to come. Ireland and Summit executives met more than 20 times over six months.

Each saw in the other a mutual benefit. For Summit, Ireland appeared uniquely suited to perform rapid and inexpensive installations of hundreds of natural gas boilers that would burn the cost-saving fuel. Ireland, 42, said he saw in Summit a chance to build his nest egg and retire early.

BUSINESS BUILT ON ENERGY AUDITS

Before he ever touched a natural gas boiler, Ireland was a high-volume weatherization contractor.

In May 2012, Efficiency Maine, a quasi-public agency charged with lowering Mainers’ energy costs, introduced a slate of cash rebates for homeowners that would eventually lift Ireland’s business.

The Residential Direct Installation program provided $600 for an energy auditor to assess a home’s efficiency and perform six hours of air-sealing work.

The rebates could be paid directly to homeowners, who had to file the paperwork, or they could release the payment to contractors. Ireland’s strategy was to limit the cost of each job to the amount paid by the state so homeowners paid nothing. If homeowners wanted to spend for additional work while he was there, it was a bonus.

“My approach was, hey, I get my foot in the door, I do the energy assessment, do the air sealing, we may do an attic insulation job. We may not,” Ireland said in a two-hour interview last month with the Maine Sunday Telegram. “But I was more concerned with getting my foot in the door.”

He offered incentives for referrals, and soon the work was nonstop.

Ireland hired more staff, eventually growing to 43 employees by August 2013. He had customer service representatives working the phones to drum up new business. In the field, six weatherization crews worked throughout central and northern Maine.

On his website and in brochures, Ireland touted his staff’s industry experience and ability to leverage the public subsidies.

“As an Efficiency Maine Energy Advisor and Program Partner, we make sure each of our customers receive all eligible incentives and rebates,” the brochure said.

It was a process Ireland would perfect.

No other contractor filed for more rebates in the residential direct installation pilot program, said Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine. Although it did not name Ireland specifically, a summary of the program published by Efficiency Maine notes that the most voluminous user of the program filed 2,129 rebates worth nearly $1.3 million in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013. In all, Ireland filed for 3,254 rebates, equaling $2 million in state money, accounting for roughly one in 10 of all rebates issued statewide.

The bonanza slowed when a change in the rebate rules took effect in September 2013. The state began requiring homeowners to contribute $200 of their own money – a less attractive sales pitch to people on a tight budget.

But as one financial door was closing for Ireland, another one was about to open.

INTRODUCTION TO SUMMIT

As part of the regulatory agreement that allows it to do business in Maine, Summit agreed to start a rebate program similar to the state rebates Ireland had relied on, covering natural gas appliances and weatherization work.

In the summer of 2013, Summit began holding meetings with area contractors to gauge their interest in doing heating conversion work and weatherization.

Ireland assembled a package deal that combined Summit weatherization rebates with state rebates, and pitched it to Aaron Dodge, Summit’s residential marketing manager.

Ireland’s approach was to keep costs low, marketing higher-return projects, such as insulating attics or basements, that could be accomplished with little or no out-of-pocket cost for customers. If it worked, Ireland’s plan would help Summit satisfy the state’s requirement that homes be made more efficient before converting to gas. It also would help prospective Summit customers save money, making the conversion to gas more attractive.

Dodge lit up with excitement, and wondered how, after talking to more than a dozen other contractors, Ireland was the first to put all the pieces together, according to Ireland.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m an entrepreneur,’ ” Ireland said. “I like making money, and I love the fact that I can make money here in Maine helping Maine homeowners reduce their heating costs. How much better does it get than that?”

Dodge declined multiple interview requests from the Maine Sunday Telegram.

With Dodge’s introduction, Ireland met more Summit executives through the summer and fall of 2013. According to Ireland, the companies crafted a brochure that showed Summit’s logo, Ireland’s logo, and a photo of two hands clasped in a firm shake, and contained information about the rebates. The flier was captioned “Your partners in energy efficiency.”

Summit did not respond to multiple inquiries about the flier or Ireland’s apparent preferred status with Summit sales staff, which verbally and in writing pushed customers toward Ireland – in one case, preprinting Ireland’s name and telephone number on a job quote worksheet.

Ireland said he geared up for a surge in weatherization work. He grew impatient and skeptical, however, when he learned that Summit was apprehensive about allowing Ireland to do work for homeowners after they had signed a contract intending to switch to gas but before the fuel was actually flowing.

Then, the two companies called a meeting in November 2013. Summit’s board of directors, local Summit executives and Ireland gathered in an Augusta conference room for more than 90 minutes, talking through the details of how the utility would manage the gargantuan task of converting thousands of homes to natural gas.

Summit executives began asking Ireland if he could take on a bigger role, in effect becoming a one-stop shop for residents to convert to natural gas, Ireland said.

“They wanted to know if I was willing to come up with an HVAC division and streamline the cost, like I did with the weatherization,” Ireland said, using the acronym for heating, ventilation and air conditioning. “They kept saying, ‘We want a boiler in a box.’ I said, ‘To be honest with you, I’m not an HVAC contractor, but if you give me some time, I’ll put a package together.’ ”

A PAUSE IN THE PLANS

At the request of Summit, Ireland assembled a menu of options for boiler installations, the lowest of which combined all available rebates to give people a blockbuster deal. Homeowners who qualified for financing could receive an energy audit, 12 hours of air sealing, attic insulation, and a new, entry-level natural gas boiler system for $89 per month for an unspecified term, according to the advertising material that Ireland distributed.

Summit declined to answer questions about the plan.

Ireland’s viability hinged on how quickly he could obtain rebates from the state and Summit, and there was a hang-up.

“There were homeowners who called Dave and said they’d signed the agreement to switch to natural gas when the lines came down their street,” said Jim Martin, who ran Ireland’s customer service division. “We started lining up a lot of customers, but I think there was concern from Summit about paying this money out when these homeowners were not yet connected (to natural gas).”

In the Augusta area, many customers – Summit has not said how many – were guaranteed to have natural gas by the fall of 2013. In Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth, Summit’s contracts usually promised gas delivery by the fall or early winter of 2014.

But the company repeatedly recalibrated its expectations, pushing many estimated installation dates into 2015. Driving the slowdown were unforeseen construction delays, fines by the Public Utilities Commission for substandard work practices, and new requirements to double-check its work. On Friday, Summit agreed to pay a $100,000 PUC fine after it was accused of installing its natural gas lines too close to other underground utility lines.

Summit was also hit with a $72 million lawsuit filed in December 2013 by a pipeline construction company it hired, and that litigation is continuing.

For Ireland, the delays meant a serious blow to his revenue stream.

The delays caused some prospective customers to lose confidence, and some in Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth have said they no longer trust the utility after it had given them incorrect information or failed to provide information.

Cumberland resident Peggy Pisini would eventually cancel her contract with Summit after Ireland’s collapse.

“I’m just so happy I didn’t jump on board,” Pisini said last month. “I don’t want to be rushed.”

A SPIRAL DOWN

For months, Ireland was stuck in a financial holding pattern.

Gas needed to flow for Ireland to do weatherization and conversion work, but Summit did not hit its construction targets.

According to Efficiency Maine and Ireland, Summit was reluctant to pay upfront for energy audits and air sealing work for customers who did not yet have natural gas flowing. The company was wary that customers would take its rebates, break their contract and never convert to natural gas.

“There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation,” said Stoddard, of Efficiency Maine. “All of those (rebate jobs) could theoretically be done without ever following through on the initial plan to join the utility.”

By February 2014, Ireland’s top employees noticed that he was having trouble paying his bills.

When the tires on the company trucks began to wear thin, Ireland didn’t have the cash to replace them, Pawlendzio said. When an employee slipped and fell in February, injuring his knee, Pawlendzio and the employee discovered that Ireland’s workers’ compensation insurance had lapsed.

Sensing Ireland’s precarious financial position, Pawlendzio, along with the head of the sales division, Tom Snyder, and the injured employee, Ben Tibbetts, all resigned together in March, the employees said.

Ireland would lay off more people, including Martin, in May, All the while, however, he continued to perform energy audits and insulation work, hoping that Summit would release its portion of the money to him.

According to residents in Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth, Summit representatives were still pushing Ireland in brochures, verbally and in written Summit materials distributed at their sales offices.

Ireland said he eventually completed roughly 45 boiler conversions in the Augusta and suburban Portland areas. At one point, Ireland said, Summit owed him about $65,000. Summit declined to comment about the rebates or whether it ever owed rebate money to Ireland.

Deposits from new Ireland customers were being used to pay for overdue projects he promised to complete.

In a few cases, Ireland bought home heating oil to tide over customers whose homes he said he would convert but did not reach in time.

With scant reserves to draw from, Ireland ran up $67,780 in charges with his plumbing supplier, Portland Winnelson Co., according to court documents. The company has since filed a lawsuit to get the money it’s owed.

Finally, on Nov. 18 Ireland got a call from his bookkeeper. He had a negative account balance. The same day, Efficiency Maine notified Ireland that it would no longer process its portion of the rebates until Summit processed its portion.

Ireland called a companywide meeting. Dave Ireland Builders had shrunk to about a dozen employees. They were all out of a job, he told them.

A week later, after news of the sudden closure triggered a public outcry and scrutiny from law enforcement and the media, Ireland released a statement blaming Summit for his collapse and accusing the company of refusing to honor agreements it had made. Worse, around the same time he was defending his name as a businessman, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court handed down a ruling upholding a civil protection from abuse order against Ireland, in which it was alleged that he sexually abused a child. Ireland was never charged criminally.

Summit has said it had no relationship with Ireland, but that, in a move to regain trust, it would repay customers’ deposits and honor Ireland’s job quotes through Summit’s own natural gas conversion company.

Customers looking for a rebate after losing money to Ireland must agree not to take legal action against Summit for contracting with Dave Ireland Builders, and give Summit the right to pursue Ireland for the money that Summit is paying out.

Summit declined to say if it would pursue legal action against Ireland to recover the costs of reimbursing his former clients.

Now, instead of coordinating with a contractor like Ireland, Summit received regulatory approval to open its own heating and ventilation installation business. In its public statements, Summit has pitched the new company, called Natural Gas Conversion Co., as a remedy for former Ireland customers.

Ireland, broke, has not filed for bankruptcy, and doesn’t know if he will.

“I think my mistake in this was hanging around a lot longer than I should have with Summit,” he said.