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Car dealer accused of trespassing

At 5 a.m., he wanted to speak to his neighbor, with whom he has quite a history.

By BILL COATS
Published January 29, 2007


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TAMPA — On one of the poshest lakefronts in the Tampa Bay area, something was amiss at 5 a.m. Sunday.


Car dealer Ernie Haire wanted to talk to his next-door Avila neighbor, Paul Bilzerian, about a legal dispute. He drove his golf cart through the gate of Steffen Manor, one of the biggest mansions around. Haire rang his ex-pal’s doorbell.

But Haire, 51, never had his conversation with Bilzerian, because he soon was talking to Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies instead.

They arrested the president of Ernie Haire Ford and charged him with trespassing, disorderly conduct and making harassing telephone calls. A deputy reported that Haire left some 15 messages on Bilzerian’s recorder, some of them obscene.

“It was just poor judgment with that early a phone call,” Haire told the St. Petersburg Times Monday.
The M-80s also didn’t help, Haire said.

Someone set off several of the fireworks after Bilzerian refused to open his door. The predawn booms reverberated for at least a half-mile across the Lutz area’s lakes and lawns.
Bilzerian’s attorney, David Hammer, said Haire threw the explosives at Steffen Manor, and even at Bilzerian’s son, Dan.

Haire said he didn’t throw anything at anyone. He said a friend, whom he declined to name, set off M-80s, which are souped-up firecrackers. The friend drove away as deputies arrived, Haire said.

As for the M-80 a deputy found in Haire’s pocket, Haire said the friend shoved it there. Haire thought the friend was returning his cigarette lighter, he said.

Haire said he and the friend had been drinking, celebrating Gasparilla.

He denied getting obscene on the phone. He said he thought  Bilzerian, an early riser, had invited him over during one of the phone conversations. There was simply a miscommunication.

Soon, “I guess I got mad when he said whatever he said and hung up,” Haire said.

“They’re escalating it much larger than it was.”

On Monday, attorneys for the Haire and Bilzerian families were in court presenting a settlement in a costly legal fight.

Legal fights are nothing new to Bilzerian. Once a corporate raider, he was accused 20 years ago by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of fraud and tax crimes in a series of failed company takeover attempts. By 1992, the SEC had won a $62-million judgment against Bilzerian.

Haire, meanwhile, was enjoying his new, 7,276-square foot mansion on the shore of Lake Chapman. Then Bilzerian bought a package of lots next door and built a 28,363-square-foot mansion, the biggest in local history.

The men formed a fast friendship. It survived business dealings gone awry and lawsuits between the two.

And when the SEC forced Bilzerian’s wife, Terri Steffen, to sell Steffen Manor three years ago, Haire’s mother financed a secret deal to return the mansion to Steffen’s parents.

Mary Haire, co-owner of the car dealership with Ernie Haire, came to control a partnership that gave her a 1 percent financial interest in the mansion, but a 100 percent say-so over its future.

She and the Bilzerians agreed to sell the house. But disagreements and delays set in. Mary Haire made payments for insurance, utilities and other costs, including the mortgage. As those costs piled up, she filed second, third, fourth and fifth mortgages.

Steffen’s mother sued Mary Haire last spring, and the case became more ensnarled by the month. Last fall, with several appeals pending, it bounced into bankruptcy court. There, Judge Michael Williamson auctioned Steffen Manor last month for $5.55-million. The parties have wrangled since then over how to divide the proceeds.

Monday, all sides presented Williamson with a settlement that repays Haire more than $4-million for her expenses from the auction proceeds. The Bilzerians are to receive $847,000, including $130,000 in expenses that are due them.

John Anthony, an attorney representing Mary Haire’s partnership, said it took concessions by lawyers to stop the feuding.

“There are seven professional firms that have been involved in this litigation … that were all willing to discount their fees somewhat so they can move on to more productive legal work,” Anthony said.

Yet Ernie Haire said Monday that it wasn’t the mansion dispute that prompted him to call Bilzerian in Sunday’s wee hours. It was another lawsuit, stemming from Haire’s operation of Jack Rabbit Limousine Service, in which the Bilzerians were a top investor, Haire said.

The Bilzerians, meanwhile, own another house in Avila, a tenth the size of Steffen Manor. They plan to move there.
For now, the new owner of Steffen Manor, Michael Peters of Clearwater, is letting them stay on as caretakers.

The mansion is for sale, Peters said. Asking price: $16-million.

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 29, 2007, 23:05:01]


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