Bank, clients seek answers

The president of Construction Compliance Inc. stays quiet while Coast Bank tracks its millions.

Published January 26, 2007

Its stock price reeling from a string of questionable loans, Coast Bank said it alerted auditors this week to track $66-million it disbursed to build 482 investment homes in partnership with St. Petersburg builder Construction Compliance Inc.

The money certainly didn’t all go into completing the houses. Homes finished in the past 11/2 years in places like Sarasota and Charlotte counties number only in the dozens.

CCI customers, many promised sure-bet investment houses for no money down, are asking one big question: Where are the millions withdrawn from Coast Bank in their name?

One person reluctant to answer is CCI president Jesse Battle III. Aside from a prepared statement issued by a subordinate this week, Battle has declined comment.

On Friday, a Times reporter was turned away at CCI headquarters, 646 First Ave. S. Battle relayed a message through a receptionist that his attorney would call. The attorney didn’t call.

That leaves customers and their attorneys searching for answers.

Jeff DeNight of St. Petersburg signed up for a CCI house in October 2005. Coast Bank has disbursed $80,000 toward his construction loan, but the insurance agent has nothing to show for it but a vacant lot on a block that DeNight called “swamp land.”

“I just think it got away from him,” DeNight said of Battle. “It was too big, mismanaged. It just mushroomed to the point where it was beyond their management capability.”

In its statement this week, CCI blamed mostly outside factors for its “financial crisis” but said it’s seeking other money to finish the houses.

“Declining home values, hurricanes, material shortages, permitting delays and the failure of lenders to honor their commitments have caused CCI severe financial distress,” the statement reads in part.

Other CCI clients and their attorneys have focused on Battle. He comes from an old St. Petersburg family, and his late mother, Virginia “Jennie” Battle, once ran a florist shop. Web sites talk of Battle’s 27 years in the business, though much of his earlier career was spent doing building renovations.

DeNight and others said Battle seemed to have bought up lots cheaply near parts of southwest Florida hit by Hurricane Charley in 2004. As late as December, the corporate Web site said Battle was scouting land in Marion, Sumter and Citrus counties.

“If you are a landowner, we invite you to contact us to discuss how we can help you realize the highest potential value for your property,” Battle wrote.

In addition to taking a beating on the stock market, Coast made itself a candidate for merger or acquisition by hiring a New York investment adviser this week.

Customers hope to get their homes built — or their debts released. Many have sought legal advice and have called a Coast Bank hotline seeking answers.

Some chuckle over a public charity that Battle runs known as the Battle Foundation. The nonprofit accepts donations to provide Christmas assistance for children.

Among the needs Battle succors through the charity: help with mortgage payments.

James Thorner can be reached at (813) 226-3313 or thorner@sptimes.com.