tampabay.com

Austin joins list seeking payment

The Tampa developer is among other unpaid creditors just as Gladstone Cooper is seeking another port term.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published December 16, 2005


TAMPA - A number of creditors have sued Tampa Port Authority chairman Gladstone "Tony" Cooper and companies he ran in recent years to collect unpaid bills.

Add one very influential creditor to the list: Al Austin, pioneer office developer of Tampa's Westshore district and heavy hitter in Florida's Republican Party.

Austin sued Community Family Health Plan Inc., a fledgling health maintenance organization that lists Cooper as president, in August for failing to pay five months' rent on its Westshore office.

The company didn't respond in court and Austin was awarded a $51,000 default judgment last month. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Sam Pendino also directed AmSouth Bank to take the money from any account it holds for Community Family Health.

Austin says he considered Cooper a friend and agreed to lease the company a 5,500-square-foot office at 1311 N Westshore Blvd., when Cooper asked for help last year.

"I always felt pretty good about Tony until this experience," Austin said. "He's personally very likeable. But business is business. If people don't pay their bills, I treat everybody the same."

Cooper declined to talk Thursday about problems at Community Family Health or why the company stopped paying rent on the office. It vacated the office in August.

"It's not my company, it's a venture people put together to do something good," Cooper said. "I'm on the outside."

Florida corporate records list Cooper as company president and he signed the two-year office lease in the same capacity, said Nelson Guagliardo, vice president of the Austin Co.

Cooper wants to pay Austin, "but the power (for the company) to pay us lies with Tony's board," Guagliardo said. "It's not in Tony's power to pay."

The dispute comes at an awkward time for Cooper. Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to the port board in 2001 and Cooper has asked for a second four-year term. At least three other Republicans have applied for the job, which doesn't pay a salary.

Owner of a property management company, Cooper has been active in local politics as a Republican fundraiser and as campaign finance co-chairman for unsuccessful Tampa mayoral candidate Frank Sanchez in 2003.

Austin operates in an entirely different league politically.

He serves as finance chairman for Florida's Republican Party. Austin has long ties to the Bush family, starting with the first President George Bush. He makes recommendations to Gov. Bush on local political appointments and was appointed to the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board.

Austin said he won't get involved in Bush's decision on Cooper's reappointment to the port board because "it might look spiteful."

The Times reported in 2003 that a half dozen creditors had court judgments or liens over money they claimed was owed for goods and services provided at a Temple Terrace apartment complex that Cooper managed and owned in a partnership.

Two partners in Beresford Associates accused Cooper of mismanaging the property and sued to remove him. They won a default judgment in Hillsborough County Circuit Court in May. The sides reached a confidential settlement three months later.

A lender sued to foreclose on Cooper's Temple Terrace home in 2003 for failing to make payments on a line of credit. The case was later settled. Credit card company Capital One is seeking to collect a court judgment against Cooper for nearly $2,800 in debts.

Community Family Health was created to start a health maintenance organization, but partners never raised the money needed to launch it, said Simone Barefield, listed in corporate records as the company's vice president.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384.