Landlord's fire claim looks bogus
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 13, 2002
TAMPA -- The day before Thanksgiving in 1999, a fire damaged several units at Steven Green's Cedar Pointe Apartments. Hillsborough County fire investigators estimated the damage at $40,000 and labeled the fire "suspicious."
Several weeks later, Green filed an insurance claim, saying he had a contracting company's bid for the repair at the run-down complex.
The amount of the claim? $135,000.
Documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times raise numerous doubts about the validity of the claim by Green, a controversial landlord whose apartments have set records for code violations and fines in Hillsborough:
The company that Green said submitted the bid for the repair work -- Tampa Bay Contracting Corp. -- it appear among companies with a state contractor's license.
The business suite shown as the address for Tampa Bay Contracting is not a suite at all. It is a townhouse on Harbour Island in downtown Tampa once rented by Green. The phone number listed for the company on the bid form is actually the number for a cellular phone formerly used by Green.
Most tellingly, Tampa Bay Contracting's bid was signed by a dead man. Donald Kappas, listed on the bid as a principal of the contracting firm, died on Oct. 4, 1999, seven weeks before the fire at Cedar Pointe Apartments. Kappas was a friend of Green's, but there is no evidence he had any connection with Tampa Bay Contracting. In fact, Kappas worked for a venture capital company in New York City. Green knew Kappas had died; he went to his funeral.
According to one of Green's former employees, the repair work at Cedar Pointe was done by someone who was paid half Tampa Bay Contracting's purported bid of $135,000.
"A handyman by the name of Larry Schmidt and a couple of helpers did that work," said Tony Zappone, a former Green property manager.
Zappone said Schmidt was paid about $68,000 to complete the repair work at Cedar Pointe Apartments, a 76-unit complex off Sligh Avenue, just west of 56th Street.
Green no longer owns Cedar Pointe. He sold the complex in July 2000, eight months after the fire.
Reached at his New York office last week, Green said there was nothing irregular about the insurance claim or repair work at Cedar Pointe.
He described Tampa Bay Contracting as a real company run by Kappas, "a dear friend" he had tried to help after Kappas fell on hard times.
Why was Green's townhouse apartment used for Tampa Bay Contracting's address? Because Kappas "slept on my sofa while he was in Tampa," Green said. "He had nowhere else to go."
"I remember loaning him the money to start the corporation," Green said. "Then he died. I was a pallbearer for him."
Green promised to provide records on Tampa Bay Contracting to the Times by Monday. By Monday evening, he had provided no records and had not returned phone calls. The Times has been unable to get Green's explanation of how Kappas' signature came to be on a document created months after he died.
Donald Kappas' father disputed all of Green's assertions about his son except this: Green and Donald Kappas were friends, and Green did attend Kappas' funeral.
Everything else Green claimed is impossible, said George Kappas, a 72-year-old retiree living in Stamford, Conn.
Donald Kappas could not have prepared a bid for the Nov. 24, 1999, fire at Cedar Pointe, his father said, or signed the $135,000 bid document dated Jan. 17, 2000. He died of a heart attack at the age of 39 in New York City on Oct. 4, 1999.
Donald Kappas never worked at contracting and never lived in Florida, his father said. At the time of his death, he was a vice president at a Manhattan venture capital firm called Eurovaleur Inc.
Ultimately, Green's company received an insurance payment "in excess of $100,000" for the Cedar Pointe work, said Dale V. Sjoberg, a Tampa claims adjuster who helped handle the claim.
Told by the Times that there was no corporate listing or other record for Tampa Bay Contracting, Sjoberg replied, "That's news to me.
"That's the (bid) document (Green) gave to me, and I passed it along. But I can't say I knew anything about the contractor."
The claim was paid by Hanover Insurance Co. Hanover officials declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of policy information.
County records show no permits were issued for the renovation work at Cedar Pointe, an oddity given the size of the insurance claim.
"You're talking about electrical, plumbing, maybe structural damage for that fire," said Don Shea, Hillsborough's community improvements director. "There should have been permits pulled to do that kind of work."
After buying the Cedar Pointe Apartments for $1.15-million in December 1998, Green made some improvements, including adding a small pool. Nineteen months later, he sold the complex to a firm run by Schur Management Co. of New York City for what appears to be a handsome profit: $3.34-million.
Schur did not enjoy the same profitability.
In December 2001, Schur stopped making payments on a $2.72-million loan assumed from Green. A Minnesota bank foreclosed, and Cedar Pointe was placed in receivership.
A court-appointed receiver found a host of problems: rent records in disarray, abandoned cars behind apartments, stairwells with loose railings and termite damage, the outside lights dark because of failure to pay TECO, the pool closed.
A final judgment for $2.71-million was entered against Schur last month, and Cedar Pointe will soon be scheduled to be auctioned off at the county courthouse to the highest bidder.
Green, 37, is the owner of a dozen apartment complexes in the Tampa area valued at nearly $40-million. The Yonkers businessman has made news in recent weeks for code enforcement violations that have resulted in his being fined more than $239,000.
A former delicatessen worker who developed a knack for squeezing profits out of declining apartment properties, Green made a Village Voice list of the Ten Worst Landlords in New York City in 1990. A judge tossed him in jail for turning off the hot water for tenants during winter, and Green amassed millions in code violation fines in New York. They remain unpaid a decade later.
In May, Hillsborough County officials padlocked Green's 212-unit Amberwood Apartments after inspectors discovered hundreds of code violations relating to water damage, exposed wires and missing fire alarms.
Last month, SunTrust Bank filed a foreclosure suit on Green's $1.7-million, 8,157-square-foot South Tampa mansion, saying he skipped payments on a $975,000 mortgage and missed a June deadline on a $750,000 commercial note. Green also has a $1-million Merrill Lynch Credit Corp. loan on the red brick home at 801 S Delaware Ave.
-- Times researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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