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Philanthropist Kiran Patel embroiled in downtown Tampa ownership dispute

After spending $13 million, a local investment company is suing over a block in downtown Tampa with a disputed ownership that includes well-known philanthropist Kiran Patel.

Incorporated in 2006, 3MT Investments is owned by Jugal K. “Jay” Taneja, a 73-year-old Tampa developer and health care and pharmaceutical executive. Among other roles, Taneja has served as chair of Largo-based GeoPharma.

In addition, 3MT is the manager of Fuel Group, a co-defendant in the action, whose registered agent is listed as Jugal Taneja. Fuel Group and 3MT are located at 6911 Bryan Dairy Road, Suite 210, in Largo. The Tanejas live on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa.

Another co-defendant in a lawsuit over ownership of five properties in Tampa is Dr. Kiran Chhotubhai Patel, 67, the renowned former cardiologist, health care executive, developer and philanthropist. Patel is one of the best-known figures in the Tampa Bay region’s Indian-American community.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in December that Patel announced plans to open an osteopathic medical school on the former Clearwater Christian College property.

Patel is also seeking to build a 32,000-square-foot home in Tampa with his wife, fellow cardiologist Pallavi Patel.

On April 19, 2006, a Tampa company called Fuel Investments and Development spent just over $13-million, spread out over four separate transactions, to acquire a square block in downtown Tampa.

The five addresses on the block — just east of the Tampa Convention Center — are 220 S. Franklin Street; 228 S. Franklin Street; 238 S. Franklin Street; an office building on 401 S. Florida Avenue; and 411 S. Florida Avenue.

A 2009 Tampa Bay Business Journal article names the investors, which include father-and-son Indira Lalwani and Jai Lalwani, saying that the purchase was “backed by philanthropist Dr. Kiran Patel.”

The initial project was to build a hotel, later replaced by a plan to develop dormitory housing for University of Tampa students.

Named developer in the project was Fuel Group LLC, a troubled company involved in several court actions in 2009.

The 3MT firm claims ownership of a 7.5 percent stake in Fuel Investments & Development, which in turn owns the block listed in the suit.

However, in 2016, it allegedly sought to buy out Fuel Group’s controlling stake in Fuel Investments, which then led to the discovery that Kiran Patel, not Fuel Group, owned the controlling stake.

The lawsuit, filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court Jan. 13, claims Patel “is exercising control” over Fuel Investments and “refuses to relinquish his assumed majority interest and recognize the interest” of the plaintiff.

Plaintiffs 3MT are asking the court to either declare it is the owner of a controlling stake in Fuel Investments or that 3MT was “defrauded.”

In the suit, 3MT argues the purchase of Fuel Group’s stake in Fuel Investments was negotiated with Vani Lalwani, also named as a co-defendant. They say Lalwani claimed she was the controlling member of Jai Enterprises LLC, which subsequently was a controlling member of Fuel Group.

The square block in dispute currently encompasses a three-story office building at 401 S. Florida Avenue and four parking lots (BayLawsuit.com)

 

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Suit claims barbecue at Vinoy made conference attendees sick

A conference last year at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club resulted in nearly 20 people falling ill, according to a lawsuit filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court.

In April 2013, Swarovski, a privately-held Austrian company known for premium crystals, jewelry and other accessories, held a conference at the Vinoy, the historic, 361-room hotel located on the St. Petersburg waterfront. Managed by Marriott, the hotel is owned by Texas-based FelCor Lodging Trust.

Judy Beauparlant, who flew in from her home in Canada to attend the event, was among the Swarovski employees at the conference.

An outdoor barbecue, held on the last day of the event, allegedly left Beauparlant and at least 18 other employees ill. Several days after the conference, she suffered from “acute and significant abdominal pain, inability to urinate and difficulty walking.”

Beauparlant claims her illness forced her to undergo surgery, resulting in her hospitalization for diverticulitis, Salmonella and a ruptured bowel.

In the suit filed Jan. 12, Beauparlant says the food at the barbecue included dairy-based items, shellfish and meats. She alleges those items were left outside for an “extended period of time,” cooled only by ice, and located next to “hot grills.”

Beauparlant’s lawsuit does not indicate if any of her co-workers are also seeking compensation from Marriott in or out of court. She is seeking damages for negligence.

Interestingly, Beauparlant’s lawsuit does not list FelCor Lodging as a co-defendant.

The Vinoy is at 501 5th Ave. NE in St. Petersburg.

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Natural fast-food chain Evos faces healthy judgment on defaulted loan

Evos, the Tampa-based fast-food restaurant chain, is being accused of defaulting on a $100K loan.

Founded in 1994, Evos Holdings LLC advertises its restaurants as a healthy alternative to typical burger joints. The environmentally-conscious company, headquartered at 609 S. Howard Ave., seeks to make customers feel good about the food they are eating, with natural, organic and fair trade ingredients.

On December 1, 2012, Evos Holdings borrowed $100,000 from Steven Marx of 5104 S. Westshore Blvd. in Tampa.

In a lawsuit filed Dec. 29, Marx claims Evos defaulted on the loan, and now owes the entire $100,000 in principal plus accrued interest.

A 2002 St. Petersburg Times article notes the first Evos location open 1994 on Tampa’s Bay to Bay Boulevard. Co-founders Michael Jeffers and Alkis Crassas were “college buddies at McGill University in Montreal, where they majored in business administration.”

Since then, Evos opened restaurants in multiple Florida cities, as well as North Carolina, Georgia, and California, as well as in multiple Florida cities.

However, nearly a quarter-century after the first Evos restaurant opened, the chain appears to be no closer to widespread success than when they started in 1994.

Over the years, the company expanded and shrunk; new stores had opened while others closed.

According to the Evos website, there is only four Florida locations, and none listed in North Carolina, Georgia, or California.

 

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Insurance company sues Tampa ‘entrepreneur of the year’ for unpaid workers’ comp premiums

Lisa Bythewood

A Tampa businesswoman faces trouble with her California insurance company, which claims she owes $627K in workers’ compensation premiums.

VHU Express is a courier company owned by Lisa Dianne Bythewood, 48, and Dr. Craig Bythewood, 49. The couple married in 2008.

VHU grew substantially after it contracted with Amazon.com to deliver packages in South Florida, Boston and other regions.

San Diego-based Insurance Company of the West is a subsidiary of ICW Group, which says it is the “largest group of privately held insurance companies domiciled in California.”

In 2015, the Tampa Bay Business Journal named Lisa Bythewood, as VHU’s CEO and president, one of the finalists in its 2015 Businesswoman of the Year competition. Bythewood was listed in the “Entrepreneur” category and eventually won the “Roar” award. She also published a Christian-living book in 2011 called “Waiting on the Promise.”

Craig Bythewood is a professor of finance and economics, calling himself “The Finance Doctor: Providing your prescription for financial healing.” According to his LinkedIn bio, Bythewood’s LinkedIn bio, he and Lisa operate Vertical Holdings Unlimited, a motivational speaking company. He previously served as financial education director for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bythewood also won a national dance-off contest in 2007, according to an article (“Dancing Dad No. 1 in people’s hearts”) in the Tampa Bay Times.

In a complaint filed Jan. 10 in the Hillsborough County 13th Judicial Circuit Court, Insurance Company claims VHU Express owes it $627,000 in unpaid workers’ compensation and employers’ liability coverage premiums.

This is not the first time VHU’s employment policies have been targeted with legal action.

In 2016, the Boston Business Journal reported that the Massachusetts attorney general fined VHU more than $80,000 for violating the state’s wage law.

“The investigation determined that from December 2015 to February 2016, a total of 52 employees had not been paid for work performed delivering Amazon packages, according to the AG’s office,” the Journal wrote. “State law requires employers to pay most employees within six days of the end of the pay period during which the wages were earned.”

Also in 2016, the Miami-based firm FairLaw announced they were seeking a punitive class-action lawsuit against VHU in federal court for “allegations of unpaid minimum wages, overtime wages, and violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.” The suit, “Benjamin and Alonso v. VHU Express, Inc., et al.,” represented VHU delivery drivers working in Florida.

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Racial hate forces homebuyers to cancel Davis Islands deal, owner refuses refund

A married couple of Indian descent, looking to buy a Davis Islands home last year, canceled the deal after angry neighbors hurled violent racial epithets.

Now the homeowners are refusing to refund a $30K good faith deposit.

Kaderbhai Ali Asgar, also known as Ali Asgar Kaderbhai, is a 52-year-old Tampa resident who works as an engineering intern and secretary for A-One Engineering & Consultants. Asgar’s wife, Sehera Ali Asgar, 49, is A-One’s manager. Herbert Roy “Herb” Donica is a 63-year-old attorney at Donica Law and Donica Mediation Solutions in Tampa, along with his wife, 62-year-old attorney Janice “Jan” Donica. Herb Donica had previously served as president of the Tampa Bay Bankruptcy Bar Association.

In August 2016, the Asgars agreed to buy the Donica’s 2,766-square-foot Davis Islands home for $658,000. The home in question is at 632 Luzon Ave. in Tampa.

Debra Lynn “Debbie” Olson, a 59-year-old Tampa resident, lives with her husband Bruce Harlan Olson in a neighboring 3,278-square-foot home at 631 Luzon Ave.

David Harvey Howard, 58, is the owner of a now-defunct company On Your Own with Help at Home. He purportedly lives nearby at 628 Luzon Ave. in a 3,227-square-foot home owned by attorney Bret Thomas Hamlin.

When the Asgars, joined by two family members wearing “traditional Indian Sari attire,” arrived for a final walk-thru Nov. 4, 2016, a day before the home closing, Debbie Olson allegedly burst into the home, knocked down a Donica family employee, and began yelling the Asgars were “fucking up the neighborhood.”

Olson then left to go to the home of David Howard.

According to the suit filed Jan. 3 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, Howard then “angrily strode into the front yard” of the Donicas’ home, screaming that the Asgars were not welcome. Howard told Herb Donica he would “break all of your fucking windows” and “burn your fucking house down.”

Howard’s actions — which included calling the couple “fucking ragheads” — caused the Asgar’s young daughter to become “hysterical” and cry.

A Realtor for the Donicas’ called Tampa Police, who filed a report. On the same day as the outburst, records show both Herb and Jan Donica filed repeat-violence complaints against Howard, which the court rejected.

Howard had been in trouble before. In 2010, he was found guilty of misdemeanor battery, and faced a repeat-violence claim by a woman unrelated to the incident with the Asgars.

After the 2016 incident, the Asgars decided to call off the home purchase. The Donicas allegedly refused to refund the $30,000 deposit.

The Asgars are seeking damages because of inducement, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and tortious interference with a contract. They are asking the court to order a return of the $30,000 deposit.

In 2011, Franchising.com reported that the Asgars signed a franchising agreement to open as many as 25 Tasti D-Lite locations over the next 10 years throughout the Tampa Bay area.

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Maximo Elementary principal sued by employee fired after reporting abuse

Lakisha Falana

A principal assigned to improve one of Pinellas County’s infamous “failure factories” is being sued by a co-worker who reported a student assault, and was fired for her trouble.

Lakisha Falana, 42, is principal of Maximo Elementary School, which she took over after the school received three consecutive “F” grades. Falana was previously principal at Tarpon Springs Elementary before she took over the Maximo job in 2014.

Emily Marie Vaultonburg, a 35-year-old St. Petersburg resident, served as a behavior specialist for Maximo Elementary at the time of the incident. According to a 2009 Tampa Bay Times article, Vaultonburg was a teacher at Woodlawn Elementary until 2008.

In 2015, Falana – along with principals of five other schools identified by the Tampa Bay Times as ‘failure factories” – met with several local African-American leaders.

As part of the effort to improve the struggling Maximo Elementary, Falana partnered with the CEO of architectural firm Harvard Jolly in 2016 as part of the Pinellas County School District’s Executive PASS program, which pairs business leaders with school principals to help improve school and student performance.

By August 2016, Falana’s efforts led to Maximo improving by at least two grade letters.

Despite Falana’s impressive record, Vaultonburg says she was at Maximo Elementary September 27, 2016, when she “heard an adult physically assaulting a student with a belt in the school bathroom.” The adult was the boy’s uncle.

Vaultonburg told Falana she believed alleged assault should be reported to the Florida Department of Children and Families. Falana allegedly disagreed, accusing Vaultonburg of being “too emotional.”

Nevertheless, Vaultonburg reported the incident; and was fired later the same day.

On Jan. 5, Vaultonburg filed suit in Pinellas County’s Sixth Judicial Circuit Court against Falana — and, by default, the Pinellas County School Board — for illegal retaliation.

Vaultonburg says she also told assistant principal Tekoa Moses about the bathroom beating.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, a spokesperson for the school district explains Vaultonburg’s dismissal was not related to the reported child abuse. In an email, Lisa Wolf said the termination was for “performance issues that occurred prior to the date of her dismissal.”

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Tampa recycler blames firm for mislabeling 4 million lbs. of medical waste

A Tampa recycler is accusing a waste disposal company of mislabeling millions of pounds of medical waste – including bloody bandages and fluid bags – leading it to be incorrectly treated as recyclables.

Stericycle is an Illinois-based medical waste disposal company operating in 23 countries with revenues of $2.655-billion for fiscal year 2016.

A&M Metals is a scrap yard and recycling facility located at 4902 S. 50th St. In Tampa. Alexander Gregory and Larry Gregory are listed as managing member and authorized member, respectively. Scrap King is A&M’s sister company, which also operates a recycling facility at 5002 Dover St. In Tampa. Alexander Gregory and Larry Gregory are also president and authorized member, respectively.

In 2013, Scrap King signed a two-year contract to process “recyclable materials” from a Stericycle facility at 4245 Maine Ave in Lakeland. The contract specifically prohibited “regulated medical waste.”

A&M later discovered that “recyclable materials” brought to its scrap yard included “bloody bandages, used sharps, used medicine containers, used needles, used batteries, waste containers and red bags full of fluids, numerous bottles with residue of pharmaceuticals, including included narcotics in excess of the 3 percent limit that would trigger a special category of waste handling, and other infectious, disease-carrying materials.”

Before learning of the allegedly fraudulent mislabeling, A&M officials estimate it illegally processed roughly 4-million pounds of medical waste, resulting in an investigation by both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Hillsborough County health department for regulatory violations.

The lawsuit, filed by A&M January 9 in Hillsborough County’s 13th Judicial Circuit Court, accuses Stericycle of fraud, leading to a “loss of business reputation and customer base, pollution and contamination of the property, cost of remediation and regulatory compliance, loss of profits, and costs incurred in preparing to recycle the metal.”

The Stericycle website – with the tagline “We Protect What Matters” – says this about hazardous waste: “As the leading provider of medical waste disposal services, protecting people and the environment from the risks associated with biohazards is at the heart of what we do. Hundreds of thousands of customers trust Stericycle to manage their biohazardous waste disposal.”

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Steak N Shake blamed for rape of co-worker, ignoring abundant ‘red flags’

Raheem Bell

A Steak N Shake employee raped by a co-worker in 2013 is suing her employer for failing to act, despite several warnings of the attacker’s behavior.

In early 2013, police arrested Largo resident Raheem Willis Bell, then 21, for forcibly removing the pants of a 17-year-old girl and raping her Jan. 11 behind the Target store at 4450 Park St. N in St. Petersburg.

According to a Seminole Beacon article on the rape, Bell had a prior arrest in March 2012 for lewd and lascivious battery on a female under age 16. At that time, he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 18 months’ probation.

A condition of the probation was that Department of Corrections must confirm Bell’s employment status by directly contacting his employer. At the time, Bell worked for Steak N Shake at 10555 Ulmerton Road in Largo. A month after the 2012 incident, Steak N Shake allegedly transferred Bell to the St. Petersburg location on 4480 Park St., rather than fire him.

Of the 2013 rape charge, Bell was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Now 25, Bell is a registered sex offender.

A lawsuit filed by the anonymous victim Jan. 4, 2017, in Pinellas County Sixth Judicial Circuit Court says Bell and “Jane Doe” were co-workers at the St. Petersburg Steak N Shake. The two were on break at the time the rape occurred.

Before his time at the Steak N Shake restaurant in St. Petersburg, Bell was also targeted with sexual harassment complaints from female co-workers. Soon after, Doe and other female co-workers began to complain to management that Bell was sexually harassing them. The suit argues Steak N Shake should have fired Bell long before the incident.

However, the suit says nothing was done.

Now, Doe is seeking damages for negligent retention, assault and battery.

Steak N Shake is a subsidiary of Biglari Holdings, a public-traded company based in San Antonio, Texas. Other Biglari properties include Maxim magazine and Western Sizzlin, a chain of buffet restaurants.

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Ex-NFL star sues Lutz bar over son’s drunk driving death

Brian Holloway

Ex-football star Brian Holloway is suing a Lutz bar for the wrongful death of his son.

Holloway and Bette McKenzie, parents of Max Holloway, 26 when he died last year, claim that Panini’s Bar and Grill in Lutz knew Max was an alcoholic.

Per Florida law, when someone knowingly serves a habitual drinker alcohol, they could be held liable for injuries or damages caused by the drunken person

Max was a regular at Panini’s.

On Oct. 26, 2016, he spent hours drinking at the bar, chatting with the staff until 2:30 the following morning. Max left in his car after a long night of drinking.

Roughly 200 feet away from his condo, he lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a nearby home on Lutz’s Lake Fern Road. He was killed in the crash.

The parents seek damages for funeral and burial costs, loss of support and companionship, and mental pain and suffering.

Holloway posted to Facebook two days after his son’s death to announce the day and time of the funeral service. In the post, Holloway wrote as though he were Max, it read, “Wow! this place is amazing! Heaven! The skies are the bluest you’ve ever seen and the air is crisp, and my allergies; are gone!”

The Panini’s Bar and Grill in question is located at 3973 Van Dyke Road in Lutz.

Brian Holloway played NFL offensive tackle for the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Raiders from 1981 to 1988. Max played football for the Tampa Bay Storm and Boston College. He was a P.E. instructor at his alma mater, Jefferson High School.

No others were harmed in the accident.

 

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Florida demands Largo anti-bullying nonprofit to stop fundraising

A Largo anti-bullying nonprofit is under fire by the state of Florida, demanding it stops fundraising after its solicitation license lapsed.

On the Gulf Coast Giving website, the charity — incorporated in 2009 by Nick Foley of Largo – had said its “main mission is to provide underserved schools and nonprofits with updated technology and training to maximize their efforts; and to provide cyberbullying awareness, prevention and intervention programs to secure a brighter future for our community’s youth.” Gulf Coast promises to donate a portion of its fundraising proceeds to groups such as Habitat for Humanity, the Clearwater Seaquarium, Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, Cornerstone Campus Ministry and others.

 As recently as last week, however, the website still included a ‘Donate Now’ button and a ‘Giving’ menu selection. On Monday, the website has been taken down.

As of Sept. 23, 2016, the Florida Division of Corporations had dissolved Gulf Coast Giving for failing to file an annual report. Charities in Florida cannot solicit funds unless registered with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In the 2015 report, Gulf Coast listed three directors and/or officers: Foley, Anthony Foley and Paul J. Burns. Jessica Moody-Shafer is listed as operations manager.

Gulf Coast, located at 12597 Walsingham Rd #2 in Largo, claims it had established a partnership with the City of St. Petersburg and Mayor Rick Kriseman to screen the documentary “Bully” and host a discussion about bullying. Allegedly attached to the event were boxer Winky Wright, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, and St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway.

In a 2013 article in the Tampa Bay Times, Gulf Coast – described as a group that “promotes volunteer work” – organized a bully-awareness week at local schools.

However, after Gulf Coast Giving allowed its registration to lapse, FDACS filed a complaint about illegally soliciting contributions. In an order issued Aug. 16, the department demanded Gulf Coast to stop seeking donations and pay a $500 fine. A lawsuit filed by the state in Pinellas County Circuit Court Jan. 5 says the Gulf Coast has done neither and is asking the court to intervene.

The home page of Gulf Coast Giving. As of 1/11/2017, the website still included a ‘Donate Now’ button. Image courtesy of BayLawsuits.com
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