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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Feb. 20, 2004 15 years ago

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

This week's items: Hillsborough Chief Judge Manuel Menendez recently told a group about his adventure in a stairwell in the new George E. Edgecomb Courthouse.'Nauru' banks in Florida source of trouble Darryl Rouson has taken to the airwaves

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

In search of balance

Hillsborough Chief Judge Manuel Menendez, who is known for his dry sense of humor, recently told a group about his adventure in a stairwell in the new George E. Edgecomb Courthouse. His key card didn't work in a security lock, leaving him temporarily confined.

That is just one of a few glitches being reported in the 332,000-square-foot building that cost Hillsborough County taxpayers $42.9 million, acknowledges 13th Circuit Court Administrator Michael Bridenback.

"It's a new building," he says. "It will take a while to get everything balanced. One of the problems is the county requested we move into the building before it was ready. They wanted to get us out of the old building so they could begin construction (there)."

Some court personnel say balance is needed in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. Apparently, some of the hearing rooms don't have thermostats, making them quite warmer than facilities in the old courthouse that were usually too cold.

Bridenback says most of the complaints center on the building's phone system. It's a temporary system, he says. The computer network also hadn't been completely transferred.

One of the more frequent comments he hears is about the large size of the building and its unusual dome-shaped hallways, where people often get lost.

"In terms of the building itself, there is nothing major," he says. "Obviously, we have folks using the building who weren't part of the planning. Planning started 10 years ago. Maybe they have different ideas than those in the front of how it was organized. Since it took 10 years from planning to open the doors, I don't think any judges involved in the planning are on the bench, certainly none in the divisions in this building."

Nauru racket

What is it about the tiny nation of Nauru and rogue banks?

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has updated a list of financial institutions that the banking regulator says operate or did operate illegally in the United States.

Two of the purported banks that have been on the list for a while are or were located on the Gulf Coast. The Greater International Bank of Nauru is or was in Tampa. United Bank and Trust Co. (Nauru) has or had an office in Bonita Springs and a mailbox in Naples.

If you're not familiar with Nauru, Coffee Talk forgives you. Nauru, pronounced "Nah-roo," is the world's smallest independent republic and is tucked away on a 21-square-mile island in the middle of the South Pacific. Its main export is phosphate, which may explain why somebody keeps opening dubious banks in the name of Nauru amid us Floridians.

Some Nauru officials haven't completely ignored the problem. Back in 1998, the government revoked the banking licenses for the Greater International Bank of Nauru, Nauru's United Bank and Trust, and the Commercial Intercontinental Bank Inc. (Nauru) in Miami.

The Greater International Bank of Nauru, in particular, had unsavory connections. It was affiliated with Greater Ministries International Inc., a Tampa church that ran what federal agents termed one of biggest Ponzi schemes they'd ever investigated. Church leader Gerald Payne is serving 27 years in prison.

The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations may hold hearings in the near future on Nauru's banking and passport-issuance systems.

In the meantime, the comptroller's office advises legitimate bankers to remember the names on its list and "please view with extreme caution any proposed transactions involving any of the listed entities."

Media blitz

Move over attorneys John Morgan and Gary Beltz. St. Petersburg lawyer Darryl Rouson has taken to the airwaves with blitzes on radio and television.

Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP and a criminal defense lawyer, recently spent more than $100,000 on a marketing campaign to promote his firm, Rouson & Brumley.

Rouson and partner, Omar Asim Brumley, focus primarily on criminal defense. They've opened a new office at 3110 First Ave., N., Suite 5W, St. Petersburg.

National recognition

Tampa attorney William E. Hahn of Hahn Morgan & Lamb PA and Venice attorney Geoffrey D. Morris of Morris Widman & Keim PA earned recognition on American Lawyer's recent list of top 100 verdicts for 2003.

They were the only plaintiff's attorneys from the Gulf Coast region to appear on the annual list. Hahn and Morris represented Kyrra Casey, a 31-year-old newspaper sportswriter, in a medical malpractice lawsuit against Bradenton's Blake Medical Center. The $22.6 million jury verdict last October ranked 80th on the national list. While being treated for an illness at the hospital, Casey went into a coma and emerged with debilitating brain damage.

Tampa attorney James J. Evangelista of Fowler White Boggs Banker represented the hospital and ultimately negotiated a settlement with Casey's guardian.

Plaintiff's attorneys from Alabama produced the largest jury award of 2003 - an $11.9 billion verdict in favor of the state of Alabama against Exxon Mobile Corp. over natural gas royalties. Miami attorney Arthur W. Tifford worked the largest verdict last year in Florida - a $137 million award in favor of University Express Inc. in a stock fraud lawsuit against Capital Advisors Inc.

Hot and cold

Two Tampa companies turned up on the latest list of hot Florida stocks from Weiss Ratings Inc., a Palm Beach Gardens-based research firm.

Global Imaging Systems Inc., a Carrollwood distributor of office technology, and Maritrans Inc., which is an East Coast maritime transporter of petroleum on Harbour Island, got the thumbs-up from Weiss. The pair rated all As for stock market performance.

The investment return for Global, which was profiled in GCBR last August, was 29% for the fourth quarter of 2003 and 72.7% for the year. Maritrans returned 12.1% for the latest quarter and 27.7% for 2003.

Global stock had nearly doubled since last May to around $34 a share in January, before a recent retreat. Its price-to-earnings ratio was 19 in the middle of this month. Maritrans is more of a bargain at $18.15 a share, with a P/E of 8.

At other end of the Weiss scale, Sarasota's Comdial Corp. and Tampa-based Digital Fusion Inc. got failing grades for being among Florida's worst common stocks. Digital Fusion, an Internet software and service company, is sucking wind at 33 cents a share. But Comdial, which sells for around $3.50 a share, is spoiling for a comeback. The communications equipment supplier's leading Internet telephony product is getting solid reviews in geek circles.

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