Land speculator shirked payments
By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
Even as land speculator Don Connolly was snapping up dozens of tax deeds in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, he was ignoring $750-a-month payments ordered by a judge who said Connolly committed fraud in a 1997 tax case.
Records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show that Connolly made no restitution payments at all in 10 of the 17 months since he began buying tax deeds early last year.
Yet he bought at least 111 tax deeds in the Tampa Bay area during that time. In April alone, he paid $148,300 for 16 tax deeds he bought in Pinellas County.
That sum would have wiped out his restitution, originally set at $124,378. The figure was negotiated in a plea deal in which Connolly pleaded no contest to withholding $512,713 in state sales taxes on more than $3-million in sales made by his Kinjite Motors used car company from 1992 to 1994.
While he was falling behind on his restitution, Connolly was spending a small fortune buying tax deeds for submerged land and other odd properties, then marking them up for high-priced sales to adjacent landowners.
In November 2001, Connolly missed his third consecutive $750-a-month restitution payment, probation records show, but shelled out $48,160 for 32 tax deeds in Pinellas.
Among his purchases was a $1,000 tax deed for a four-acre lake in the upscale Tarpon Woods neighborhood in northern Pinellas. Connolly sent letters seeking $30,000 from each of 15 homeowners around the lake, then erected a pink fence on the shoreline when they balked at paying.
Connolly recently took down the fence and remains in talks with the Tarpon Woods homeowners. Most are still angry.
"How can he get away with these things?" said Tarpon Woods homeowner Joanne Smith. "It just boggles my mind how someone this evil resides on the planet."
The controversial real estate ventures, as well as investigations by the governor's office and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, prompted Florida probation officials to file papers saying that Connolly had violated the terms of his probation.
Connolly's probation officer, Carolyn E. Upshaw, initially filed an affidavit saying the 44-year-old Valrico businessman was $13,427 behind in his restitution. But Connolly quickly made a payment for the full amount.
A day later, however, Upshaw filed another affidavit, saying Connolly had violated his probation by, among other things, failing to make "monthly payments in accordance with the ordered court payment schedule."
Upshaw's latest affidavit adds a new violation, accusing Connolly of committing perjury on a state application to become a notary public. On his May 2001 application, Connolly was asked whether he had been convicted of a felony, had ever had adjudication withheld or was on probation. He answered "no."
Connolly was placed on probation for 15 years and had adjudication withheld in the tax fraud case. He also had adjudication withheld after being found guilty in cases charging him with assault and with soliciting for prostitution.
Because of the falsified notary application, the governor's office sent Connolly a letter June 3 seeking his immediate resignation from his notary public position.
Records show that Connolly has used his notary seal to notarize signatures on several mortgages he has made to land buyers in Pinellas and Hillsborough, even though notarizing a document in which the notary has an underlying financial interest is prohibited by state regulations.
The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office recently obtained from Pinellas officials a list of the Pinellas mortgages notarized by Connolly.
The Hillsborough state attorney is responsible for any prosecution of Connolly on the probation violation. A hearing has been set for June 20, and Circuit Judge Deborah Behnke must decide whether the violations raised by the state warrant sending Connolly to prison for up to five years.
The Manatee sheriff also has an open criminal investigation into a deed transfer by Connolly. The deed enabled Connolly to avoid paying the $18,000 he had bid for a tax deed to a sliver of land on the Manatee River.
The deed was conveyed to Connolly by NA Development, a firm that went out of business in 1988. Investigators have found no trace of the man whose signature was on the NA Development deed to Connolly.
The complaint sparking the investigation was made by a retired couple who live across from the property Connolly bought.
They said he threatened to park junk cars on it if they didn't buy the land for $20,000.
-- Jeff Testerman can be reached at 226-3422 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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