Jury Awarding Culverhouse $20 Million Was More About A Corrupt Sarasota County Government Than A Land Use Issue
By Jon Susce
No matter how the Sarasota Herald Tribune lead editorial writer, Tom Tryon and SHT columnist, Tom Lyons attempted to spin the awarding of over $20 million to Hugh Culverhouse Jr. to be all about a land use issue among prominent Sarasota County developers; it was obvious to those who can’t be confused by the facts, that the Culverhouse initiated lawsuit was much more than a land use dispute between local developers.
To the dismay and utter embarrassment of the inept journalistic duo of Tryon and Lyons, the multi-million dollar Culverhouse lawsuit filed against Randy Benderson and Henry Rodriguez turned out to be exactly what THE SARASOTA PHOENIX has been saying for the last three years, which was that the Culverhouse lawsuit against Rodriguez and Benderson would exemplify a corrupt Sarasota County Government under the direction of former Sarasota County Administrator Jim Ley.
TRIAL GAVE EVIDENCE OF A CORRUPT LEY ADMINISTRATION
What the Culverhouse lawsuit accomplished is what had not been accomplished when a low-level Sarasota County official in 2011 was arrested for taking a bribe by West Palm Beach law enforcement. This led to various local law enforcement officials investigating a corrupt Ley Administration. The Culverhouse civil lawsuit did what the inept investigation by various local law enforcement agencies under the shadow of the Ley administration did not do. It put Ley and developers like Benderson and Rodriguez under oath and in fear of perjury. In addition, Steven Hutton, the Culverhouse lead attorney was excellent in presenting to the jury and anyone else who sat in that courtroom, a detailed documentation clearly illustrating corruption in the Ley Administration. Most importantly, the jury observed Ley, Rodriguez, Benderson, and Benderson’s attorney, Ed Vogler up close under oath, and essentially determined that they conspired to defraud Culverhouse and subsequently awarded Culverhouse over $20 million.
SARASOTA HERALD FAILS TO SHOW UP
What is scandalous is that the Sarasota Herald Tribune failed to report on a daily basis this high profile trial. For example, an SHT reporter attended only one session late in the trial and the final summation by the various attorneys to the jury. Of course Lyons and Tyron sat on their perch at SHT building a few blocks from the courthouse throughout the trial. They were not willing to observe up close how a corrupt Ley Administration operated for years, which Lyons and Tyron covered up for years.
BENDERSON AND RODRIGUEZ ATTEMPT TO DENY PRESS TO COVER TRIAL
Even more scandalous is that Rodriguez and Benderson through their attorneys attempted to have this reporter removed from the courtroom. Incredibly, this reporter had to file motion with Judge Peter Dubensky, who presided at the trial and seek assistance from an ACLU representative, Michael Barfeld to be able to report on the trial.
The Benderson/Rodriguez attorney’s contention is that this reporter should be not allowed in the courtroom because he had contacted witnesses to be called to testify at the trial was ludicrous.
No matter how the inept Tryon/Lyons duo tried sweeping Sarasota’s dirty little secret under the carpet, namely that a few well connected powerful developers like Benderson and Rodriguez control Sarasota County politicians (such as former Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson and others) the clear evidence presented by Hutton made it quite apparent to those who sat in that courtroom, that Sarasota County Government was corrupt under Ley’s direction. Anyone who attended the trial who had the slightest bit of political acumen and discernment, which no doubt the jury did, witnessed clear evidence of how a few politically well-connected developers like Benderson and Rodriguez controlled Sarasota County government. Unfortunately, that corruption and control still continues today.
LYONS AND TRYON BURY THEIR HEADS IN SAND
For years both Tryon and Lyons have been burying their heads in the sand concealing Sarasota’s dirty little secret that Sarasota County Government under Ley was nothing more than a play toy used by a few well-connected, multi-million dollar developers to enhance their financial gain at the public’s expense.
What has totally upset Tryon and Lyons is that their attempts to portray Culverhouse as just another developer in the same mold as Benderson and Rodriguez has certainly failed with the general public, who have not had the political or financial ability to take on the political machine that has corrupted Sarasota County for years.
CULVERHOUSE GAINS RESPECT OF LOCAL VENDORS
Culverhouse has gained the respect of both residents and the business community for having the willingness to use his financial wherewithal to take on Benderson, who having arachuted into Sarasota from Buffalo, has earned the reputation of fleecing local vendors and turning Sarasota into an urban sprawl nightmare.
Culverhouse has become respected by local vendors for doing what they wished they could do in taking on Benderson, whose development representative, Larry Feinberg was recently described by City of Sarasota Attorney, Bob Fournier, as acting like a “gangster” in negotiations with pubic officials.
No matter what Tryon and Lyons—who spent not a minute in the courtroom—attempted to play down while reporting on the verdict, the significance of the jury award to Hugh Culverhouse Jr. in the amount of $20 million plus, cannot be denied.
The significance to this reporter and apparently to the six-member jury picked at random, is that given the facts and opportunity to observe public officials like Ley, and developers like Benderson and Rodriguez up close and personal, each had the ability to discern what so-called journalists like Tryon and Lyons have for years refused to acknowledge for obvious reasons. The most obvious reason being that Tryon and Lyons are essentially the paid mouthpieces of those who pour millions of dollars into advertising with the SHT to cover-up how snugly Sarasota County Commissioners fit into the pockets of developers like Benderson and Rodriguez.
JURY GIVES CREDIBILITY TO CULVERHOUSE—DENIES CREDIBILITY TO BENDERSON, RODRIGUEZ AND LEY
What the jury discerned, and Tryon and Lyons refuse to acknowledge, is what any reasonable individual attending the proceedings would have discerned, namely that Culverhouse was a much more credible witness in his testimony than Benderson, Rodriguez or Ley. Even Tryon and Lyons wouldn’t have a hard time discerning—as no doubt the jury discerned— that Ley has serious legal issues stemming from sworn testimony—such as taking gifts from developers like Rodriguez and his business partner Gary Kompothecras. So how could the jury not fail to understand that Ley had a major credibility problem when denying that he fraudulently conspired with Rodriguez and Benderson against Culverhouse’s financial interests?
As damaging as Benderson and Ley’s testimony was, Rodriguez’ sworn testimony was even more damaging to both himself and Benderson with regard to their claims that they did not conspire in a fraudulent manner with Sarasota County officials to increase their financial gain in the federally funded EEZ Project, while substantially decreasing Culverhouse’s financial interests.
RODRIGUEZ ADMITS GIVING CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTION TO PATTERSON IN EXCHANGE FOR INSIDE INFORMATION
For example, under oath, Rodriguez admitted “doctoring” an email exchange between himself and former Commissioner Patterson on October 14, 2010 in which Patterson clearly passed inside information to Rodriguez about an upcoming Sarasota County Commission vote and discussion concerning the EEZ Project set to take place on October 26, 2015. The eventual outcome of this commission vote was financially favorable to Rodriguez and Benderson. Rodriguez admitted he “doctored” the email in order “not to go to jail” and when further questioned about the alteration, he added that it, “would be illegal if he did not do so.”
Unfortunately for Rodriguez and Patterson it does not make it legal for Rodriguez to “doctor” an email after which the illegal action occurred. Patterson had clearly passed inside information to him, while at the same time soliciting a campaign contribution for her 2010 re-election campaign. Also, Rodriguez’ “doctoring” of the email after the fact that the illegal action had occurred, does not cover up Patterson’s failure to post the email exchange on her public email web site, as she was legally required to do.
RODRIGUEZ DISABLES COMPUTER TO COVER UP ILLEGAL ACTION
That makes Rodriguez’s move to cover up this illegal action even more egregious is that Rodriguez attempted to disable his computer’s hard drive so that the email would not become available to Culverhouse attorneys. It was only after 13 months of requesting pertinent emails from Sarasota County officials that Sarasota County attorney for Patterson, Allen Roddy gave up the emails, which provided the kind of clear evidence that sends public officials to jail.
DeMARSH AND HARMER NEED TO REQUEST A CRIMINAL INVESTAGATION
There is no question that with a Sarasota County attorney in attendance at the trial, having heard sworn testimony and witnessed documentation presented to the effect that Ley received gifts from Rodriguez and Kompothecras, and with Rodriguez having admitted that he “doctored” an email exchange between himself and Nora Patterson in order not to go to jail—not to mention the subsequent attempts to conceal the email exchange—Sarasota County Attorney Steven DeMarsh and Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer need to request the appropriate federal law enforcement agency to investigate Ley and Patterson for potential criminal actions.
Those potential illegal actions include the email exchange between Rodriguez and Patterson which Rodriguez testified that he “doctored” in order to conceal Patterson’s passing of inside to information concerning the federally funded EEZ Project in exchange for a campaign contribution. Rodriguez’s testimony at the trial clearly indicated he solicited inside information from Commissioner Patterson in exchange for a campaign contribution.
PATTERSON PASSED INSIDE INFORMATION ON $70 MILLION
BENDERSON ROWING PARK
What was not introduced at the trial, but gives yet another example of Patterson passing along inside information to Benderson on an upcoming vote and discussion that favored Benderson in the receipt of $millions in public funds, was an email exchange between Patterson, Brenda Carleton, Mary Slapp and Paul Blackketter. This exchange took place on October 4, 2010, ten days before the Rodriguez/Patterson exchange wherein Patterson gives Rodriguez inside information on the EEZ project.
Slapp is the Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange and major supporter of Patterson’s re-election in 2010. Blackketter is employee of Benderson, who was not only a lead player in the Benderson Rowing Park, but testified at the trial that he was integrally involved in the EEZ. This October 4, 2010 email exchange, found on Patterson’s private email address, concerns an upcoming vote in which Patterson tells Carleton she has communicated to Benderson and Blackketter that an upcoming vote before Sarasota County Commission will be favorable to Benderson. Patterson informs Carleton there will be no need to bring the “masses” to an upcoming meeting of the Sarasota County Commission to discuss the $70 million Benderson rowing facility, as Patterson states, there will be a “unanimous” vote for the Benderson Project unless her “math is wrong.”
This passing on inside information concerning an upcoming vote and discussion of a no-bid $19.5 million contract to Benderson, in exchange for campaign contributions to Patterson in 2010, also needs be turned over by Harmer and DeMarsh to law enforcement officials. In addition, Ley’s testimony that he received gifts from Rodriguez and Kompothecras needs to be investigated by appropriate law enforcement agencies. Those free gifts include transportation for Ley and his wife on a Kompothecras jet, securing hotel accommodations at a five star hotel in Tallahassee, and high priced tickets to Governor Rick Scott’s inaugural in 2010 for both Ley and his wife. What should trouble Ley is that if he is convicted of committing an illegal act, as a Sarasota County Administrator, his monetary settlement attached with Sarasota County government when he was forced to resign, would be in serious jeopardy.
What should trouble the general public in regard to their right to know if their public officials violated the law, was a decision by Judge Dubensky and Judge Nancy Dunnellon prior to the trial. Dubensky and Dunnellon ruled that former Sarasota County Commissioners Shannon Staub, Jon Thaxton, Joe Barbetta and Patterson and other public officials could invoke “Legislative Privilege” to avoid testifying at the trial.
Fortunately for the general public’s right to know if their public officials violated the law, the same ruling might not apply in a Tampa courtroom with respect to Culverhouse’s federal court case filed against Ley and Sarasota County. For example, if Culverhouse chooses to depose Rodriguez, Patterson and other Sarasota County public officials; invoking “Legislative Privilege” to avoid having to give testimony, may be denied. If they are required to testify in Tampa, most likely there will be a race between those Sarasota County officials to see who can get to law enforcement authorities first. By the way, what does Rodriguez “racing” to Panama indicate the day after the jury awarded Culverhouse $20 million?