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Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

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  • | 6:00 p.m. May 28, 2004
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Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

Real impolitic

Barbara A. Petersen is president of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-partisan group that tries to keep open as much as possible about Florida government.

It ain't easy.

Fourteen new exemptions to the Sunshine State's sunshine laws were passed this year by the Florida lawmakers, Petersen lamented during a recent speech in St. Petersburg.

But it wasn't just a bad year for open government at the Capitol. It was a bad couple of months for common decency in Tallahassee.

Petersen had a vignette to illustrate how bad.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, got his Alzheimer's institute at the University of South Florida, named for his father who died of the disease. The Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute may turn out to be a worthy public investment toward curing a dreaded ailment. Or it could be just a foolish monument to political ego.

But one thing is for sure. A good chunk of the $20 million going into building the institute will come from Florida taxpayers. Yet Byrd wanted to seal up everything the institute does. No public meetings. No public access to any records.

To Petersen's surprise, Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, was willing to go along. That was conditioned on Byrd giving up his quest to rescind a telephone rate hike, which the speaker had wholeheartedly supported last year before his U.S. Senate run.

King had come to loathe Byrd. Why would he cut the speaker any slack?

Petersen says a King staffer told her why the boss would consider tossing a blanket over the USF institute: "You'll litigate it. We'll get what we want. And Johnnie Byrd will get screwed."

When her St. Petersburg audience finished gasping, Petersen remarked: "I grew up in Washington, D.C. I've been hanging out with the Florida Legislature for 15 years now. I'm still not that callous."

Byrd rejected the Senate compromise and the business of preventing any public scrutiny of a tax-supported medical facility will have to wait for another year.

An omen?

When Democrats start sounding like central bankers, could a tumble by the American economy be far off?

Little noted in the news coverage of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's recent travels through Florida was a brief comment at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg May 25.

Nelson confessed worry about federal deficits. He noted that much of the budget gap is funded by China and Japan. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and others have begun to speculate about what happens if Asian investors stop buying U.S. Treasury notes. What becomes of the Bush administration policy of waging war and cutting taxes at the same time?

Nelson says he doesn't like to think about what the U.S. economy might look like in 2005.

What a deal

The St. Petersburg office of SouthTrust Mortgage Corp. must be the place to shop for a mortgage. That's where a corporate affiliate of disbarred securities broker Jacques Chrysochoos secured the $2.25 million loan to buy Steffen Manor, the home that convicted corporate raider Paul Bilzerian built for his wife, Terri Steffen.

Located in the exclusive Avila gated community, the home is considered by many to be the largest residence in Hillsborough County, with 31,000 square feet of living space and a reported appraised just market value of $6.18 million. That's what's raising a lot of questions. Just how did Chrysochoos negotiate such a good deal at a $2.55 million sale price, considering the Securities and Exchange Commission had a multimillion-dollar lien on the property? The SEC, which quitclaimed its interest to the Chrysochoos affiliate, filed the lien against the property following Bilzerian's securities fraud conviction.

In an interview last December, Chrysochoos told GCBR he owned interest in a couple of bars in New Orleans and some real estate rental properties. He also talked openly at how much money he personally lost, too, when the bubble burst during the dot-com heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s. So Coffee Talk is left wondering what revenue sources and assets he pledged to underwrite the loan.

The deal is likely to be of interest to the attorneys of Samir El Masri, a Belgium businessman who sued Chrysochoos in U.S. District Court, Tampa, on charges of fraud and civil theft. Although they've dismissed several co-defendants, El Masri's attorneys have filed an amended complaint against Chrysochoos. He has denied the allegations in documents filed by Tampa attorney G. Michael Nelson, who is listed in court records as a former business partner.

The mortgage company issued the loan to Guerrini Family LP, with Chrysochoos and Guerrini Corp. listed as the general partners. Guerrini is the last name of his mother, Liliane. Documents show the home's new owner paid $300,000 down and agreed to interest-only payments for 10 years on an adjustable-rate mortgage initially payable at 3.625% and capped at 12%. The loan adjusts based on movement of the LIBOR market index.

Not including mortgage and maintenance costs, the new owners also face a revised property tax bill of more than $81,000.

Buying Horizon

If you were intrigued enough by our recent profile of Manatee County's Horizon Bank to call your stockbroker, bank President and CEO Charlie Conoley wants to be sure you know what you're buying.

His bank's holding company is called Horizon Bancorporation Inc. Don't confuse it with Horizon Bancorp, the holding company for a commercial bank in Indiana that trades on the Nasdaq exchange with the symbol HBNC.

Conoley hopes his Horizon gets a trading symbol of its own soon. He'd like to go up on Nasdaq, too. Ever wish bankers could be a little more creative with their branding?

A spot on the Nasdaq ticker should help market liquidity as investors exercise warrants that Horizon sold over the past year. Conoley would like those good folks, if they so choose, to be able to profit from the wisdom they showed by sinking money into his bank's parent.

There is Horizon stock to be had. Conoley says he's not the biggest shareholder, only in the top five.


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