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Philanthropist ... and a fraud

In sentencing Steven Green in Tampa today, a judge will weigh his charity against his crimes.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published February 20, 2007


At a 2002 charity gala at New York's Plaza Hotel, Steven Green straightened his tuxedo, smiled and relished the moment. On one arm was The Sopranos co-star Lorraine Bracco. On the other was actor-turned-director Penny Marshall. They toasted Green, a tireless fundraiser and board member of the Shield Institute, which assists developmentally disabled New Yorkers. Green started his improbable journey to the Plaza working construction. He clerked at a deli, skipped college and built a real estate empire, building by rundown building. Now at age 37, he oversaw a $65-million real estate portfolio, slept in mansions valued at $5-million and flew to appointments in a pair of Cessna Citation charter jets. But as he was feted at the Plaza, the secrets of another side of Steven Green were starting to spill out.

A fire had broken out at Amberwood, a Tampa apartment complex he owned. Hillsborough officials found hundreds of code violations. They padlocked the complex, forcing dozens of tenants into the street. Less than two weeks before the Plaza gala, a bank filed suit to foreclose on the loan Green used to finance Amberwood. But the $9.49-million judgment the bank won wasn't the worst of it. It turned out the philanthropist had committed fraud by using a falsified Social Security number on the loan application. Green had also failed to file income tax returns for three years, during which his personal income topped $3-million. Green pleaded guilty to those federal crimes and is scheduled to be sentenced in Tampa today. Determining whether he gets probation or as much as eight years in prison, U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew will weigh Green's business accomplishments and charity against his crimes. Whom does she sentence? Jekyll or Hyde?

Howard Shiffman wasn't sure what to make of the guy he sat down with at TGIF's restaurant in 2002 to negotiate the sale of the Ashley Square Apartments in Tampa.

"He had a thousand dollars worth of clothes on his back, but he looked like an unmade bed," said Shiffman. "He didn't have a pencil, a pen or a piece of paper in front of him, and he started doing all these fantastic math calculations in his head like a savant, and they were all correct. It was quite amazing."

Shiffman warned Green about an ex-employee Green had agreed to hire. Shiffman had fired her because he said she had set up a "ghost" apartment, falsified the books and took thousands of dollars under the table from the ghost renters.

She was charged with grand theft, but Green didn't mind. He said he was looking for a hard-nosed manager.

"She won't give me any trouble," Green said.

The Ashley Square sale closed 45 days later. Green's company paid $5.6-million. Four years later, Green sold the complex for $12.3-million.

* * *

In 2004, Green's Crosswinds at Lakeland apartments received a special award from the Bay Area Apartment Association for the best renovation of the year.

"I can't say enough about what he did to transition some of these distressed properties," said Diane Lee, a BAAA director who worked for the company managing many of Green's projects.

State Sen. Victor Crist also commended Green, for renovating the Amaretto Apartments in a transient area of Hillsborough disparagingly referred to as "Suitcase City."

"He replaced everything, he did a major overhaul," said Crist. "He came into a blighted community and committed a serious investment."

Hopeton Lawrence, a retired New Jersey telecommunications executive, provided a different perspective on a project renovated by Green.

Lawrence bought Green's Ashley Oaks complex in 2004. He said Green assured him there had been a 100 percent renovation. But once Lawrence took over, he found that half of the units had not been renovated; many tenants had not been screened and couldn't pay rent.

Lawrence lost Ashley Oaks to foreclosure, and with it a $1-million investment. He said he should never have trusted Green.

"It was a failed dream for me," said Lawrence. "I got taken."

* * *

On Valentine's Day 2005, at his $1.2-million home on Wigwam Road in Nantucket, Green exchanged vows with companion David Gonzalez.

The same-sex marriage was an affirmation of lifestyle for Green, an activist for gay rights causes.

Green is a director and fundraising chairman for the Nantucket AIDS network. He is a board member on the Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation, and donated or secured contributions in excess of $500,000. He donated the use of his Manhattan home for a benefit that raised $170,000 to fight methamphetamine use by gay men.

Green and Gonzalez, a lawyer, saw their relationship cool. In September 2005, the two executed a separation agreement: Gonzalez was to return a ski home given to him by Green; Green was to pay his ex-partner $780,000 in support once their union ended.

In January 2006, Gonzalez filed for divorce in New York, alleging "cruel and inhuman" treatment. Green filed papers seeking to nullify the $780,000 payment, saying the couple had never been legally married.

A judge threw out the divorce case because the state of New York does not recognize same-sex marriages. But she also said Green must pay the $780,000 because the separation agreement was a legal contract.

Green is appealing.

"I think it's unfortunate," said Eric Wrubel, the attorney for Gonzalez. "I think it undermines the progress gays and lesbians are trying to make under the law."

Green and his attorneys in New York and Florida did not respond to interview requests.

* * *

Green is the executive producer of In Debt We Trust, a 2006 movie by Danny Schechter about how America and its citizens are imperiled by predatory credit practices and spiraling debt.

Schechter is an author, civil rights worker, Emmy Award-winning TV producer and documentary filmmaker who recently produced and directed WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception.

A close friend of Green's, Schechter characterizes him as "a man of good values" who has gotten a bad rap in the press.

"The sense I get out of Tampa is that this New York Jew gay guy is a great target," said Schechter. "Like the anti-Christ has arrived in Tampa."

Schechter said the notion for In Debt We Trust came from Green's experience with an employee who got deep into debt.

"Steve is passionate about these issues," he said. "Somebody who has these feelings is not about to rip people off."

Mike Harris, who runs H&H Painting in Chattanooga, was surprised to learn about Green's involvement in a movie exploring the problems of debt.

Harris did work at several Chattanooga apartment complexes owned by Green's companies but says he can't get paid. He is suing for the $20,000 he says he is owed.

"We're a mom-and-pop operation. It's our livelihood. This kind of thing has really taken a toll on us," Harris said.

"The movie sounds kind of crazy, because he's the one putting us in debt."

It's not just mom-and-pop operations that have had difficulty collecting from Green.

Hillsborough County saw code enforcement fines involving Green's companies rise to $1.3-million before settling with him for $150,000.

Housing officials in New York City have been in court for years trying to collect code enforcement fines that now total $2.2-million.

In September, in a deposition in which the city sought to discover the location of Green's assets, he repeatedly asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

Through all the litigation, through the guilty pleas to federal crimes, Green's friends and charity associates see only Jekyll.

In a letter to Judge Bucklew, Bracco warned that sending Green to prison would have "a tremendous ripple effect on the charitable organizations that rely on his focus and determination."

The actor added, "Your Honor, sadly there are some very bad people in the world, but Steve Green is not one of them."

Times staff writer Brady Dennis and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or 813226-3422.

Fast Facts:

 

Crimes and potential punishment

Following what prosecutors termed "protracted negotiations," millionaire real estate investor Steven Green pleaded guilty last year to four crimes:

- Failure to file an income tax return for 1999, when Green's personal income was $475,252. The misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison.

- Failure to file a tax return for 2000, when his income was $1,158,723.

- Failure to file a tax return for 2001, when his income was $1,489,920.

Green paid his back taxes last month by tendering a check to the IRS for $912,613.

- Fraudulent use of a false Social Security number in the application for a $9.04-million loan on the Amberwood Apartments, a loan on which Green's company defaulted. The felony carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Green's attorneys say the crime resulted in no loss to the lender, making Green a candidate for probation. The government says the loss ranges from $2.5-million to $7.5-million, making Green eligible under sentencing guidelines for 51 to 63 months in prison.