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Crist, a renter, gets tax law lesson

The attorney general, running for governor, learns his landlord is claiming a homestead break illegally.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published February 17, 2006


[Times files, 2002]
The Bayfront Tower, at Beach Drive and Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, overlooks yachts docked in Tampa Bay. Charlie Crist rented a 1,200-square-foot 22nd-floor condominium there in June 2003.

Charlie Crist, attorney general and candidate for governor, got a crash course in Florida tax law this week.

Crist has never owned a home. He rents a St. Petersburg condominium from a man who has been taking a homestead exemption on the unit, even though he doesn't live there as state law requires.

Crist, the state's top legal officer, said he didn't know his landlord was claiming the tax break or that it was against the law to do so.

"Could he not do that?" Crist asked.

Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith said Thursday the condo's owner, Lawrence Compton of St. Petersburg, appears to have broken the law. But as a tenant, Crist did nothing wrong, Smith said. State law says a homeowner who claims the $25,000 homestead exemption must live on the property unless he's on military duty.

"That's not cool," Smith said when told of the case by a reporter. "I will have our investigators check it out."

Compton, a 65-year-old retired accountant, declined to discuss his landlord-tenant relationship with Crist.

"I'm not going to talk about Charlie. I'm not going to get into that, okay? Have a good day," Compton said before hanging up the phone.

The condo issue emerged as part of a St. Petersburg Times review of Crist's finances. Crist has posted several years' worth of tax returns on his campaign Web site, charliecrist.com.

Crist pays $1,265 a month to rent the 1,200-square-foot condo on the 22nd floor of Bayfront Tower, which overlooks Tampa Bay. He also rents an apartment in Tallahassee.

"I love St. Pete," Crist said. "I'm on the road a lot, so all I've got to do is lock the door and go."

Crist's tax returns also show he has a net worth of $400,000 but has never owned a home. He earns more than $123,000 as attorney general and is single. His assets include stocks, a black 1997 Jaguar convertible and a 25-foot Trophy fishing boat he calls Freedom. Florida's homestead exemption is a vestige of the Depression. It eliminates the first $25,000 of a primary residence's value from property taxes, and what is perhaps more significant, makes the home eligible for the Save Our Homes cap on tax rate increases.

Pinellas property records show Compton has claimed a homestead exemption every year since he paid $260,000 for the condominium in April 2003. Crist rented the unit in June 2003 after he considered buying it himself.

Property records show Compton circled "no" on a questionnaire last July that asked: "Was this property rented?"

Crist said he called Compton Thursday and suggested he forfeit any claim to a homestead exemption. Crist said he also told Compton he would be willing to pay higher rent if necessary.

"It concerned me," Crist said. "That sort of brought upon a duty to me."

Property Appraiser Smith said Compton could be forced to pay back taxes, penalties and interest if a violation occurred.

Compton's legal address on file at the Property Appraiser's Office is the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, the same address he uses for voting purposes.

Crist described Compton as an acquaintance. Compton donated $500 to Crist's campaign for governor last November, and Crist recalled Compton attending a fundraiser hosted by a doctor, Richard Knipe, who lives near Crist's parents in St. Petersburg's Snell Isle neighborhood.

With ties to St. Petersburg and Tallahassee, Crist rents places in the two cities and leases a Jeep Cherokee.

"I think I'm the poorest guy running for governor," Crist said.

Records show Crist owned stock in Bank of America, General Electric and Pfizer, but sold those holdings and invested in a mutual fund in 2003 after being elected attorney general. He said he did that on the advice of a top aide, Clay Roberts, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

He reported the fund's value at $91,000 on his 2005 state financial disclosure form. Crist also reported an IRA worth $114,000, deferred compensation worth $57,000, and nearly $18,000 in cash on hand.

Crist's opponent for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, reports a net worth of $1.7-million.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified February 17, 2006, 02:15:35]


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