Collier County growth bulged with corruption
By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
NAPLES -- For developers like Robert Hardy, Collier County in the 1990s was close to paradise.
At a time when Naples boasted the hottest housing market in the country, county officials catered to Hardy's every need. They rubber-stamped his plans, treating him with such deference they hesitated to speak his name aloud.
The reason the 73-year-old Hardy got such special treatment, according to prosecutors, is that he had three of the five county commissioners in his pocket. He gave them free golf games, free lunches, a $100,000 loan and other favors. He even helped pay for one commissioner's wedding reception.
A wide-ranging investigation into corruption in Collier County has led to felony charges against Hardy -- who pleaded no contest to racketeering last week -- as well as charges against the three commissioners, a former county manager, Hardy's son and four others.
It has also pulled back the curtain on the seamy side of Collier's 1990s development boom, unveiling a cast of players that included ruthless gangsters, a philanthropic con man and the founder of ESPN.
"What was going on was endemic, institutional corruption," special prosecutor Michael Von Zamft, who is leading the investigation, said. County officials did not blink at accepting favors from Hardy and others, Von Zamft said, because "they've been doing it for years. . . . They thought it was nothing important."
Hardy was not the only developer on whom county officials smiled. They approved so many golf course subdivisions that Naples now has the nation's second-highest density of holes per person.
Gated country clubs have sprawled well beyond Naples' urban boundaries, wiping out thousands of acres of farm, swamp and forest. By 1999 the commissioners' refusal to rein in development spurred state officials to slap a building moratorium on Collier.
Although Fortune 500 executives continue to plunk down hundreds of thousands of dollars for homes that hug the fairway, Collier residents can now see the dark side of their boom. They face higher taxes, inadequate sewer plants and overpumped water wells -- the legacy, some say, of commissioners who were working for developers and not the voters.
"We have a crisis in government, the roads are jammed beyond redemption, there are problems with services that aren't being rendered and it all goes back to the special favors that were given to special people," said Collier GOP Chairman Mike Carr. "The consequences to the people here are immeasurable."
For two years, Gov. Jeb Bush has been pushing for greater local control over growth. But Collier's corruption is a strong argument for continued state oversight, said Charles Pattison of 1,000 Friends of Florida, a growth management watchdog group.
Seeing commissioners led away in handcuffs, he said, "undermines public confidence in the ability of local officials to make impartial decisions."
After making a fortune building roads, Hardy made his mark on Collier County by lining Interstate 75 north of town with pricey developments. His son Paul, 46, followed him into the business.
Once a respected and powerful figure, Robert Hardy is now a convicted felon in ill health. The back room dealmaking that led to Hardy's downfall did not start with him, Von Zamft said.
"Bob Hardy walked in, and people let him know that this was the way things worked," he said.
By the mid 1990s, some commissioners had come to regard freebies from developers as being as legitimate as their $60,000-a-year salaries. When Naples insurance agent Shane McIntosh played golf with Commissioners Tim Hancock, Tim Constantine and John Norris, he noticed they never paid.
"It appears as though the commissioners could play really anywhere they wanted to whenever they wanted to," McIntosh told investigators. "Golf and free lunch (were) pretty much standard."
Hancock urged McIntosh to run for a commission seat too, pointing out all the perks. Hancock said there was even a golden parachute.
Hancock faced a tough re-election bid in 1998, but according to McIntosh, he wasn't worried. If he lost the race, Hardy had found him a job at a new golf course development. Sure enough, after he lost, Hancock showed up testifying on behalf of the developer in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
Hancock, 34, a land planner, was a political novice when he was first elected. When he pleaded guilty to racketeering charges last month, he blamed Norris, 60, a real estate agent, and Constantine, 36, a radio talk show host. He said they convinced him it was legal to take free stuff from developers while voting on their projects. (Norris was removed from office by the governor last year, and Constantine resigned.)
The commissioners were not the only ones with their hands out. An audit found county planners were playing free golf too, and then did not bother to collect $2-million in fees from developers that were supposed to pay for fixing clogged roads.
Even Neil Dorrill, 45, the county manager for 10 years, was on the gravy train. Months before he quit the county post, he asked Hardy for a job. Then he passed out big raises to his underlings, a down payment on the day when he came back seeking favors for his new boss. Last month he pleaded guilty to racketeering.
"There was a culture of corruption," said Carr, the local GOP chairman. "The bosses had been bought off, so the staff jumped in too with the free golf and free lunches. It permeated the whole chain."
Thanks to the commissioners, Hardy's projects skirted strict development standards for big projects by winning approval of a piece here and a piece there. Hardy returned the favor by paying half the cost of Constantine's wedding reception. Later he helped arrange a $100,000 loan for a business Constantine launched, a loan the commissioner did not pay back.
Yet Constantine insists he and his colleagues are not at fault for the county's current woes.
"Blaming that "awful corrupt commission' may be politically expedient, but the facts don't support it," he wrote to the St. Petersburg Times. "My voting record clearly was in support of the regular guy, not big business."
Constantine pleaded no contest to racketeering conspiracy last month, leaving Norris the last ex-commissioner proclaiming his innocence. Although Norris admitted wrongdoing to the state Ethics Commission, he has called the subsequent criminal investigation "a political witch hunt." His attorney scoffed at the idea that "a round of golf is a bribe."
Actually, Norris got more than free golf. Paul Hardy made Norris a silent partner in his biggest deal: Stadium Naples. But Stadium Naples proved to be the deal that unraveled all the others.
The brainchild of ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen -- who now faces a racketeering conspiracy charge -- Stadium Naples was supposed to turn a tomato field north of one of Paul Hardy's developments into a condominium project like no other.
Using Rasmussen's PGA connections, the project was designed to bring in national golf tournaments, with the final holes to be played in a 12,000-seat stadium.
But Rasmussen and Paul Hardy picked poor partners. When the Naples Daily News revealed that Norris had been handed his $7.5-million stake in the project with no money down, even as he voted to funnel $1-million in grants to the project, the resulting furor temporarily killed the project.
Then Paul Hardy and Rasmussen revived it with the backing of financier and philanthropist David Mobley and the stock brokerage A.S. Goldmen. Neither was quite what they seemed, however.
Mobley passed himself off as a highly successful investment manager. He was really a con man who stole $124-million from his clients to finance his lavish lifestyle. Last month he was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison for fraud and money laundering.
As for A.S. Goldmen, New York prosecutors say the company was bankrolled by the Mafia, and one broker was found executed gangland style in New Jersey. The company specialized in pumping up rigged stocks and then dumping them so insiders could make millions at the expense of regular investors. A.S. Goldmen closed in 1999 when 31 of its employees were convicted in New York on securities fraud charges, some involving Stadium Naples.
The revelations about Norris, Mobley and the Goldmen firm led to the current investigation, which may yield further charges against Rasmussen and others now that Robert Hardy will testify for the state.
Meanwhile one commissioner not associated with the corruption has resigned. Among the applicants to replace her is a Naples developer who used his membership at a Hardy-owned golf club to arrange deeply discounted golf rounds for county officials.
-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
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