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St. Pete retirement communities decry ‘unlawful’ property appraisal, seek tax refunds

Three St. Petersburg retirement communities are accusing the Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s office of “unlawfully” calculating of property values, leading to overpayment of thousands of dollars on its 2016 tax bill.

In separate lawsuits, owners of the three properties are suing Mike Twitty, as Pinellas County Property Appraiser; tax collector Charles W. Thomas and Leon M. Biegalski, who serves as executive director of the Florida Department of Revenue.

The suits, filed June 19 and 20 in Pinellas County Circuit Court, are for Westminster Suncoast at 1095 Pinellas Point; Westminster Shores at 125 56th Ave. S and Westminster Palms at 939 Beach Dr. NE, all in St. Petersburg.

Each is a “church-based” community owned by Westminster Communities of Florida, a not-for-profit organization based in Orlando.

According to county records, the combined 2016 property tax bill for the three properties was $377,836: Westminster Suncoast (Property Appraiser page) was assessed $69,952.31; Westminster Shores (Property Appraiser page), $172,069.92 and Westminster Palms (Property Appraiser page) $135,803.88.

Westminster Communities is alleging property taxes assessed on each of three retirement communities it owns were based on an appraised value that “greatly exceeds the just value of the subject property.”

The company claims it is because the County Property Appraiser “ignored or did not properly apply the Florida Real Property Appraisal Guidelines” and “unlawfully, systematically, and intentionally substituted his own assessment policy instead of following” state law and guidelines.

Furthermore, they say the Appraiser’s method allegedly was “unrealistic, unjust, excessive, [and] arbitrary.”

Each of the three properties now receives a large property-tax exemption. For instance, although the Property Appraiser estimates Westminster Shores’ market value at $21.6-million, exemptions reduce the taxable amount by roughly two-thirds, bringing it to $7.7-million.

“As a result of the foregoing over-valuation, the 2016 market value and assessed value greatly exceeds the just value of the subject properly,” the suit continues, “and the ad valorem taxes resulting therefrom substantially exceed the taxes which would  have  been  levied  on  the subject  property had it been  properly assessed.”

Westminster, founded in 1954, owns 21 Florida retirement communities with nearly 7,000 residents. Although Westminster paid its assessed 2016 tax bills in full, the company is saying it is not an admission that the tax was the correct amount due.

Westminster is asking the court for a partial refund.

Tampa Police seek to seize $298K found in suspicious package, without an arrest

Tampa police are looking to seize nearly $300,000 from a suspicious Oregon-bound package found at a UPS Customer Center in Tampa, despite the lack of an arrest for any crime.

On May 25, a man dropped off a 65-pound package a UPS Customer Center at 5100 Acline Dr. E, Tampa. The man, later identified as Junction City, Oregon resident Donald George “Don” Penvose Jr., arrived at the UPS center driving a newly-purchased 2002 Ford Explorer Sport Trac.

According to witnesses, Penvose – who had been acting suspiciously – asked staff to pick the package up and bring it into the center, allegedly refusing to touch the package.

When security personnel opened the package, they found a Panasonic microwave oven taped shut with several foil bags inside – a frequent practice for concealing marijuana and other drugs from X-ray machines and drug-sniffing dogs.

The Tampa Police Department later found $298,410 in cash bundles inside the bags.

A search for the package’s UPS tracking number says it is being “delayed due to a Government regulatory agency hold.”

Tampa police say they sent cash seizure notices to several addresses – including two local addresses – associated with Penvose.

One seizure notice went to a rental home owned by Pedro and Marta Angulo at 5409 N. Ninth St. in Tampa. A second notice went to a mobile home owned, but not occupied, by Theresa Lemon at 6539 Ruth Dr. in Port Richey.

According to TLO.com, Penvose’s name is linked to a vacant property at 18054 Crawley Road in Odessa.

In a petition filed June 12, the TPD is seeking permission to keep the cash under Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act.

Although police have not arrested Penvose, the department argues the money is linked to the illegal sale of marijuana.

A 2016 amendment to the forfeiture act says a seizure may occur “only after the owner of the property is arrested” for a related criminal offense. TPD is asking the court to make an exception on several grounds, including that “Mr. Penvose’s failure to claim the package is a denial of ownership.”

Apparently, the judge agreed, issuing an order June 14 that found probable cause for the seizure.

Two Largo court petitions raise question of fairness in Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act

A pair of City of Largo court petitions raise questions on the fairness of the state’s Contraband Forfeiture Act.

Ronisha Ke’irra Scott, 24, is a St. Petersburg resident. An African-American woman, Scott lives in a 675-square-foot St. Petersburg home appraised by the county at $26,435, with a sales value of $31,900.

On June 1, Largo Police arrested Scott for running a stop sign and having “excessively tinted windows.” During the stop, officers allegedly found two dilaudid pain pills and a lit marijuana cigarette in her 2004 Chevrolet Cavalier.

Scott insisted neither the pills nor the joint were hers.

Before the June 1 incident, Pinellas County records show Scott’s only criminal charge had been in 2016 for misdemeanor retail theft.

Gary Stevens Sunday is a 47-year-old Clearwater resident. Sunday, a white male, owns a 1,336-square-foot home that the county appraises at $139,931, with a sales value of $172,600.

On the same day as Scott’s detention, Largo Police also arrested Sunday after allegedly finding methamphetamine in small baggies, a meth pipe, syringes, a safe, and a digital scale in his 2015 Kia Optima SX.

Sunday, like Scott, denied the items belonged to him. The arrest report does not explain why police stopped him.

Sunday was charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to sell, possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. According to his arrest report, he is unemployed.

Online dockets show Stevens pleaded “not guilty” to the criminal charges.

A common interpretation of Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act is that law enforcement can seize and permanently keep certain items that were an instrument of, or a product of, a crime. Defendants need not have been convicted of the crime, nor even be charged.

On June 9, the City of Largo filed separate court petitions in Pinellas County Circuit Court to seize the vehicle from each of two wildly different criminal suspects — Scott and Sunday.

The requests raise several issues about the fairness of Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act.

If Sunday is accused of dealing in illegal drugs, the Act would seem reasonable — although some legal experts argue it is unfair to seize a defendant’s property unless (or until) he or she is charged and convicted of a crime.

On the other hand, Scott’s alleged crime was not dealing drugs, and her record shows no such offense in the past. In this case, seizing her vehicle might seem unnecessarily harsh, especially if Scott needs the vehicle to drive to work.

Taking Scott’s car could drive her further into poverty.

While an attorney is representing Sunday in his “not guilty” plea, online dockets show Scott has not yet filed a plea, nor does she have an attorney.

All this leads to one question: Is Largo’s attempted seizure of Scott’s car an appropriate, reasonable and legal application of Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture law?

USFSP accused of failing to protect student sexually assaulted in parking garage

Willie Fudge III, accused of attacking a USFSP student in 2016.

A University of South Florida student who was sexually assaulted in 2016 is accusing the school of not providing adequate protection for her safety.

The student, identified in documents as “L.E.,” was a USF St. Petersburg undergraduate who had been sexually assaulted by a non-student Feb. 22, 2016, after entering the elevator at the Parking Garage on the USF campus. The building, at 260 5th Ave. S in St. Petersburg, also holds the Barnes & Noble USFSP bookstore, and has only one elevator.

A lawsuit filed June 5 in Pinellas County Circuit Court said the attacker escaped. However, USFSP Police Chief David Hendry told Baylawsuits.com that police eventually arrested a suspect: 26-year-old Willie Fudge III, who at the time of the incident lived less than a block away from the parking garage.

Since the attack was sexual in nature, Pinellas County Sheriff’s online records provide only minimal information on the arrest, which resulted in at least two felony battery charges and a misdemeanor charge of exposure of sexual organs.

According to court records, Fudge pleaded guilty of all three charges and was sentenced Aug. 26, 2016, to a year in prison followed by two years’ probation.

Available offender information from the Florida Department of Corrections shows Fudge has been on probation since Feb. 22, 2017, with no indication he ever served time in a state prison, suggesting that Fudge may have served a small part of the sentence in the Pinellas County Jail.

Redaction errors on court documents reveal the plaintiff as a 23-year-old Tampa resident who obtained a bachelor’s degree from USFSP in 2017.

She is accusing the campus police — whose headquarters are on the 3rd Street side of the same building as the parking garage— failed to provide adequate protection against such an attack.

Filing suit against the board of trustees of the University of South Florida, she is seeking damages for negligence.

The suit says that the USF board “had a duty to L.E. to use reasonable care and take adequate measures to provide a reasonable degree of safety and to protect L.E. against reasonably foreseeable criminal acts of third parties at the Premises. Further, USF had a duty to use reasonable care to ensure that the premises were safe from injury from reasonably foreseeable criminal acts of third parties” and that the area had been “locations of numerous prior criminal acts, including crimes against persons and property.”

Pinellas County wage-theft law challenged as unconstitutional

A Largo executive search firm is challenging the constitutionality of Pinellas County’s recently enacted wage-theft ordinance.

KLA Industries is an Ohio-based executive search firm located at 801 W. Bay Dr., Suite 203 in Largo.

Zachary J. “Zach” Burns, 30, is a Madeira Beach resident and former KLA employee who recently moved from West Chester, Ohio. State records show Burns incorporated the recruitment company Stratus Search in March 2017. Stratus Search has its office at 3530 1st Ave. N, Suite 203, in St. Petersburg.

In 2015, Pinellas County Commissioners voted unanimously to enact a “wage theft” ordinance. In effect as of Jan. 1, 2016, the law allows local workers who believe an employer has illegally denied them wages to file a complaint with the county’s Office of Human Rights, which also fields complaints on housing, employment and disability discrimination issues.

If successful, employees are awarded treble damages. Much of the ordinance came from a similar one enacted by the City of St. Petersburg in 2015.

According to a complaint filed May 23 in Pinellas County Circuit Court, shortly after Burns resigned from KLA Industries in 2016, the company placed a recruit with one of his former clients and obtained payment for doing so.

When KLA refused to pay Burns the $5,400 commission, he filed a wage-theft complaint with the Office of Human Rights.

While the hearing will not take place until July 17, KLA is being proactive, filing a suit where the company denies Burns is entitled to the commission, and accuses him of trying to steal its clients.

KLA is contesting the constitutionality of the county’s wage-theft law on several grounds: It sets up an impermissible court outside the supreme court, district courts of appeal, circuit and county courts; it does not allow trial by jury and does not allow an employer to pursue counterclaims or assert any set-off defenses against the amount owed or against the imposition of treble damages.

 

St. Pete Beach resident sues over city approval of new TradeWinds Sugar Sands Resort

The TradeWinds Resort may have hit another snag in its proposed 116-foot tall, 12-story complex on the former Coral Reef Hotel site in St. Pete Beach.

A former candidate for the St. Pete Beach City Commissioner is suing the city to block the development, claiming the building is too tall for the neighborhood, and the OK violates an earlier agreement that limits the height of any new construction.

In 2014, TradeWinds — which owns three beachfront hotels — paid $9.5-million for the Coral Reef, soon demolishing the abandoned hotel at 5750 Gulf Blvd. Two years later, the resort announced plans for a $55-million, 207-room hotel called Sugar Sands at TradeWinds Island Resorts.

A Tampa Bay Times article in September 2016 said that Sugar Sands would be the city’s first major redevelopment project since 1999.

James Douglas “Jim” Anderson, a 53-year-old St. Pete Beach resident, filed suit against the city too, according to the Times, “block development he claimed would be beyond the capabilities of the city’s sewer system and other infrastructure.” Jim and Brooke Anderson reside in a 1,300-square-foot home in the Belle Vista neighborhood, located about 1.4 miles from the proposed Sugar Sands hotel.

In a settlement with the city in 2015, officials ordered an 80-foot cap on development projects until a series of required infrastructure studies have been completed.

A retired firefighter, Anderson had run several times for the St. Pete Beach Commission, running in 2008 on a platform that included a “No Tall Buildings” pledge.

As his campaign website states, Anderson “spent the past two years working to assure the right of the people of St. Pete Beach to vote on building height and our comprehensive plan. He has helped stop overdevelopment and concrete canyons.”

In April 2017, the St. Pete Beach Board of Commissioners approved TradeWinds’ application to build the Sugar Sands. But Jim Anderson, a longtime opponent of tall buildings in the city, says the city’s approval violated the 2015 agreement.

A suit filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court May 25 seeks the board approval reversed.

Dunedin man, exonerated after eight years in prison, fights new battle

A part-time Dunedin resident, exonerated after serving eight years in prison for arson, is fighting Florida’s effort to permanently take away his driving privilege.

William Haughey is a 45-year-old Dunedin resident who splits his time between Florida and New York.

In 2008, a New York court convicted Haughey of arson and criminal mischief for his alleged connection to a 2007 fire at a Putnam County, New York, tavern called Smalley’s Inn.

After serving eight years of a 10-year sentence, he was exonerated and released in May 2016 through the efforts of the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice and Putnam County District Attorney  Robert Tendy.

Elected in January 2016, Tendy commissioned a re-examination of Haughey’s case, and appeared in U.S. District Court in May of that year, arguing for granting Haughey’s writ, and to vacate the conviction.

Tendy said officials botched the arson investigation, as well as inconsistent witness reports, showed that Haughey was innocent and falsely convicted.

After his release, Haughey filed a $25 million claim for compensation with the New York Court of Claims in July 2016.

Six months after his release, a Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputy arrested Haughey for a DUI. Court records show Haughey had two previous DUIs in New York (1999 and 2002).

Haughey pleaded ‘no contest’ to the Florida DUI, expecting the standard six-month driver’s license suspension, as dictated by Florida law.

However, Florida officials revoked his license permanently after discovering Haughey was involved in a fourth alcohol-related conviction from 1992, in New York.

In a lawsuit filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court May 18, Haughey argues the state made an error.

The 1992 incident, Haughey says, was for a lesser offense: driving while ability impaired, a traffic infraction for those who have consumed some alcohol but have a blood alcohol level of less than 0.8 percent. The infraction should not count as a so-called DUI.

Haughey believes his license should only be suspended for six months, under Florida law.

Tampa restaurants tussle over tagline ‘fresh, healthy, authentic’

B.T. Nguyen

A prolific Tampa restaurateur is accusing a nearby rival of piggybacking off her reputation by using the same tagline of “fresh, healthy, authentic.”

B.T. Nguyen, also known as Bach Tuyet Nguyen, is one of the successful restaurateurs in the Tampa Bay area. In 2015, the 53-year-old native of Vietnam, through her company BTZ LLC, opened “BT to Go,” her seventh restaurant concept.

BT to Go is at 3215 S. MacDill Ave., Suite L in Tampa.

According to a Tampa Bay Times restaurant review, BT to Go’s tagline “fresh, healthy, authentic …  is all those things. A stickler about ingredients: organic tofu, ground grass-fed local beef, Alaskan wild pink salmon. Finished dishes, many of which can be eaten at room temperature or with a quick zap in the microwave, have a wholesome, homemade quality, bright with fresh herbs and nuoc cham.”

Gengiz Khan Turkish Grill is a restaurant that also opened in 2015, moving to its current Tampa location — 3114 Bay to Bay Boulevard — in January 2017. Ergin Tek is its chef and owner.

In 2017, Gengiz Khan’s new location was “approximately two blocks away from BT To Go,” according to a lawsuit filed May 10 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court. In addition, Gengiz Kahn  “erected a sign advertising its restaurant as ‘Fresh. Healthy. Authentic.’”

The suit claims that BT to Go has used the “Fresh. Healthy. Authentic” tagline since its opening in November 2015, and is accusing Gengiz Khan of trying to “trick” consumers into thinking the two eateries are affiliated, thereby boosting sales by way of BT’s reputation.

“On information and belief, GK chose to use the mark, ‘Fresh. Healthy. Authentic,” the suit says, “for its restaurant in anticipation that customers of BT To Go would believe that its restaurant is affiliated with BTZ’s restaurant.”

“Fresh. Healthy. Authentic.” has been adopted as the trade name and mark for Nguyen’s business, the complaint continues, and is “recognized as such by consumers” and is “famous” as defined by Florida Statute.

The suit says Gengiz Kahn has refused BT’s demands to stop using the phrase.

BT is asking the court for exclusive use of the tagline.

 

Tom Rask suing Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri over Sunshine Law violations

Tom Rask

Pinellas County political activist and blogger Tom Rask is once again gearing up for battle.

Legality of a controversial post-evacuation re-entry permit program has led the Seminole resident and government watchdog to sue Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri for violating public records law.

Rask is the 52-year-old editor of Tampa Bay Guardian, a website “founded on the premise that independent journalism is important for achieving accountability and good government.”

Rask is also well-known locally as a Tea Party activist, as well as a former Republican candidate for Pinellas County Commissioner.

Now, Rask is suing Gualtieri over the program that allows Pinellas County beach residents and business owners to return to the barrier islands after a storm evacuation.

In 2015, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office introduced Emergency Access Permits, a program seeking to prevent “looting and burglary” after a large-scale event – such as a hurricane – that require mandatory evacuation.

According to the Tampa Tribune, the EAP is “a hangtag identification system to allow drivers quick access to the islands after an evacuation.”

Under the EAP program, residents of beach communities would need to obtain and display a permit (provided at no cost) that would hang from the rearview mirror of a resident’s vehicle and be scanned “to verify your residency.” The program covers Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Clearwater Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Madeira Beach, North Redington Beach, Redington Beach, Redington Shores, St. Pete Beach, Tierra Verde and Treasure Island.

“We’re not just going to let anybody in,” Gualtieri told reporters at the time. “We don’t want people out there who don’t belong in the area.”

Rask’s Tampa Bay Guardian published articles questioning the constitutionality of the EAP program.

In the suit filed May 5 in Pinellas County Circuit Court, Gualtieri, who is also an attorney, communicated with the Guardian through several emails insisting, “there is no constitutional issue” with the program.

“The Barrier Island Re-Entry Program is voluntary and nobody is ‘required’ to obtain a permit,” the sheriff said.

Rask filed a public-records request with the PCSO in May 2016, seeking copies of any legal opinion, internal or external, concerning the constitutionality of its EAP program.

The suit claims that a month later, public records clerk Sabrina Creedon replied, saying that records concerning internal or external legal opinions about the EAP program were exempt from disclosure under Florida law.

Rask said that position was “misguided,” threatening legal action – and he is doing just that.

Arguing the requested public records are not exempt under Florida’s disclosure laws, Rask is seeking the release of all such records.

On the day of the filing, the Tampa Bay Guardian published an article about the lawsuit attributing the action to the Guardian, not Rask himself (Rask is listed as the sole plaintiff).

“The Guardian plans to file a series of lawsuits against local government agencies for violations of the Florida public records law and the Florida open meetings law, the so-called ‘Sunshine Law,'” the Guardian piece says. “Citizens’ rights to public records and open meetings which they were given lawful notice of are not simply statutory rights – they are rights enshrined in the Florida Constitution.”

Two foreclosure actions face former Nelson Poynter estate, Tampa Bay’s classiest ‘party house’

Fazal Abbas Fazlin

Two friends are facing off in court over a defaulted loan secured by an old estate of the late St. Petersburg Times owner Nelson Poynter, once valued at nearly $10 million.

Fazal Abbas Fazlin is a 66-year-old engineer and a native of Pakistan.

In 2008, a New York Times column by Roger Cohen profiled Fazlin, a millionaire entrepreneur, Muslim, Republican and Richard Nixon fan who backed Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

In 1999, Fazlin and then-wife Christina Marie Fazlin paid just over $2-million for a five-acre, 10,442-square-foot waterfront home in St. Petersburg’s Jungle Shores neighborhood once owned by Poynter.

Christina Fazlin relinquished her share of the home to Fazal in 2002, as part of their divorce. Christina, who now serves as president of Backbone Worldwide, married Burke Francisco Hedges in 2005, taking the name Christina Hedges.

Around 2014, Fazlin put the estate — which the Tampa Bay Times called Tampa Bay’s classiest ‘party house’ — up for sale, asking $9.9-million. The 2015 Times article reported the asking price had lowered to just under $6-million.

The Tampa Bay Times described the mansion as featuring “a football-field-long coastline, an infinity-edge pool, an air-conditioned five-car garage and a 250-foot dock,” with a “massage room and sauna, a home theater, custom his-and-her closets and a 1,200-bottle wine cellar.”

Kelly Schmidt

Kelly Schmidt, 56, lives in a Belleair Shores home appraised by the county at $2.6-million and priced at $4.6-million, according to Zillow.com.

Tampa Bay Magazine reported that Kelly Schmidt and her husband Bob Schmidt — the current mayor of Belleair Shores — sailed from Brazil to St. Petersburg with Fazal Fazlin and another couple.

In 2015, Bob Schmidt sued Kelly for divorce; the case is unresolved as of May 2017.

In 2016, Kelly Schmidt issued a short-term, $232,000 loan to her friend Fazal Fazlin. The original terms of the loan were that it would be paid off within four months.

Fazlin used his mansion as collateral for the loan.

Nevertheless, according to a lawsuit filed May 5 in Pinellas County Circuit Court, Schmidt says Fazlin never made any payments. Kelly Schmidt is seeking the whole sum, plus interest.

However, Pinellas court records show that Bank of America previously filed suit on Fazlin’s mansion, after Fazlin secured a $2-million line of credit in 2002, also using the home as collateral. He later defaulted on the credit line.

A complaint in January 2016 said Fazlin, along with his ex-wife Christina Hedges, owed $2-million in principal plus more than a year’s worth of interest and late charges. It is unclear whether Hedges deserves to be named in the suit since she was no longer on the deed.

Despite that, the lender was able to obtain a default judgment against Hedges. The ongoing foreclosure case against Fazlin is on the docket for a nonjury trial scheduled Sept. 28.

Since Bank of America — or its successor — holds the first mortgage on Fazlin’s waterfront mansion, it’s unlikely Kelly Schmidt will successfully foreclose.

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