gvedwards@naplesnews.com" /> Arena plans were seed of largest corruption case in Collier history » Marco Eagle

Arena plans were seed of largest corruption case in Collier history

Financier David Mobley summoned the partners to the Maricopa Hardy Development Group offices.

It was July 24, 1997. The fate of Stadium Naples — a grand, first-of-its-kind, $100 million golf spectator arena that promised to revolutionize tournament play — was on the line.

The partners had endured almost a year's worth of tense negotiations, and Mobley, the money guy, had already spent $4.5 million.

Years later, the public would learn Mobley had spent money he stole from his unwitting investors. His fraud had been in motion for years and he wasn't about to have unnecessary attention crumble his Maricopa Investments empire.

That day, Mobley and the other partners gave Collier County Commissioner John Norris an ultimatum: Quit the stadium deal or resign as a county commissioner.

Norris refused to do either.

Norris had put up no money for his potential $7.5 million Stadium Naples stake, $80,000 consulting fee and lifetime golf membership. He kept his Stadium Naples business tie and negotiations with the partners secret from the public while he continued to cast votes favorable to their interests.

Years later, a lawyer involved with the deal would call the way Norris demanded money up front on the Stadium deal nothing short of blackmail.

Norris disclosed his involvement on June 20, 1997. The partners faxed a carefully worded press release to the Naples Daily News newsroom late on a Friday afternoon.

As details of the deal emerged in almost daily stories, the public was outraged. A barrage of letters to the editor ensued and the newspaper published an editorial calling for Norris' resignation. Defying his critics, Norris read a terse public statement at the July 22, 1997, County Commission meeting.

"To put it all into perspective, I have a financial interest in a golf course project. Albeit a large one, it is a private business, nothing more, nothing less. Last year, I was re-elected with 74.2 percent of the vote. The reason is that people are apparently happy with my performance as a commissioner," Norris said.

On July 24, 1997, Norris, an Oakie, reassured his partners, according to a statement developer partner Paul Hardy later gave to investigators.

"He did coin a phrase that we'll always remember," Hardy said in his statement. "He said this is going to be like an Oklahoma (expletive) storm for a few days, and then it's going to blow over."

It never did.

Instead, the storm grew into the largest public corruption scandal in Collier County history, one that has swept up four public officials, three developers and their lawyer, a renowned entrepreneur and a notorious financier on criminal charges.

The atmosphere that created the storm — a cozy wine-and-dine relationship with developers that included free golf membership privileges at exclusive clubs and even a $5,400 discount off a wedding reception for one commissioner — had been brewing for years.

On July 25, 1997, Mobley pulled the plug on Stadium Naples. But it has taken on new life in the headlines of the 25,000 pages of evidence that make up the Stadium Naples public corruption case.

Deal in the Making

Here's how the Stadium Naples deal unfolded:

Bill Rasmussen, whose claim to fame is founding the ESPN cable network, developed the idea for the Stadium Naples golf development slated for land in North Naples next to Interstate 75. He envisioned Stadium Naples as a first-of-its-kind golf stadium with spectator seating and luxury sky boxes surrounding the final holes of a tournament course.

Rasmussen, and partners Mobley, Hardy and Renee Tolson, announced plans for the development in October 1996. At the time, Norris kept his involvement secret from the public, although a private business memo inked days earlier outlined his 12.5 percent cut as a limited partner in the deal.

In January 1997 — while never publicly disclosing his Stadium Naples business negotiations — Norris voted to give Rasmussen's Challenge Foundation $500,000 for the Senior PGA golf tournament that was slated to have Stadium Naples as its future home. Prior to that, Norris cast votes on the separate real estate projects of the Stadium Naples developer partners — Hardy, Mobley and Tolson.

More than a year earlier, Norris helped Rasmussen persuade officials with the PGA Tour to give Rasmussen's Challenge Foundation the promoting rights to Naples' stop on the Senior PGA Tour.

State Attorney investigators later uncovered that Norris told PGA Tour officials this: No county money would flow unless Rasmussen had control of the tournament. The tournament was crucial to the success of Stadium Naples.

In 1995, Naples' senior PGA tournament was in trouble. Rasmussen asked Collier County to sponsor the Greater Naples IntelliNet Challenge, named for Rasmussen's company IntelliNet, the title sponsor. County commissioners, including Norris, bailed out the financially troubled 1996 tournament with $500,000 in tourist taxes. Rasmussen promised commissioners that IntelliNet Inc. would match the grant.

It never happened.

Later that year, the county's independently elected auditor, Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock, began asking questions about the grant. He demanded an accounting of the money.

In January 1997, Norris and Commissioners Tim Hancock and Tim Constantine voted to waive a required audit of the 1996 tournament grant almost a year after the fact.

Later, State Attorney investigators concluded that $128,000 of the 1996 grant was misspent on prize money — money Rasmussen's IntelliNet normally would pay as a sponsor. Investigators said the audit waiver almost ensured the misspent grant money wouldn't be detected.

Once he had official control of the tournament, not just sponsorship rights, Rasmussen asked Collier County for a second grant.

That same day in January 1997, Norris voted to give Rasmussen's Challenge Foundation $500,000 in county money for the 1997 golf tournament. Commissioners, except Pam Mac'Kie, voted to waive an audit of that 1997 grant, too. Later, investigators discovered that $68,000 of that grant was misspent on a padded bill.

Faced with the threat of an embarrassing civil fraud lawsuit, the PGA Tour agreed to pay back Collier County $196,000 in 1999. Because Rasmussen's Challenge Foundation was broke by 1998 with debts topping $1.3 million, Brock went after the Tour's deep pockets. The local charity Quest for Kids — that Rasmussen promised $770,500 with an oversized check — never got its money.

When Norris' Stadium Naples involvement became public, Norris explained his votes this way: He said he was obligated to vote because the Stadium Naples partnership wasn't officially formed until May 1997. At the time, Neil Dorrill — who had resigned as county manager three months earlier — was named president of the Stadium Naples startup company.

Norris has said he didn't use his public office to get a stake in Stadium Naples. He has said Stadium Naples was a private business deal: He earned a stake by negotiating the partnership.

In the wake of public outrage, the developer partners scrapped plans for Stadium Naples. The proposed $100 million real estate deal collapsed in July 1997.

Norris earned a $30,667 consulting fee. Financier partner Mobley was left with a $4.5 million debt. At the time, no one knew Mobley — who is serving 17 years on fraud and money laundering charges for his $120 million Maricopa swindle that blew up in February 2000 — was stealing money from his hedge fund clients to foot the bill.

Southwest Florida State Attorney Joe D'Alessandro launched a criminal investigation and a Lee County environmentalist filed a complaint against Norris with the Florida Commission on Ethics.

While Norris faced a barrage of public criticism over his involvement with the Stadium Naples developers, Commissioner Constantine kept his relationship secret from the public.

Mobley and developer Bob Hardy, Paul Hardy's father, had teamed up in April 1997 to offer a sweetheart $100,000 business loan to Constantine that required no personal guarantees.

Constantine kept the loan arrangement secret for years and continued to vote on Mobley-backed projects, all the while skipping payments on the loan.

News of the Constantine loan didn't surface until July 2000, when the Daily News broke the story and investigators launched a probe.

Later, Southwest Florida State Attorney investigators discovered that Bob Hardy had given Constantine a $5,400 discount on his wedding reception at Hardy's swank Quail West Golf & Country Club.

In October 1998, D'Alessandro had concluded his 14-month investigation and filed no charges. He said he couldn't prove a votes-for-pay relationship between Rasmussen and Norris.

Norris called it an exoneration.

To prove a quid pro quo for bribery or unlawful compensation, D'Alessandro said he'd have to give Rasmussen immunity — a move he said he couldn't make in light of a New York criminal investigation into Rasmussen's second attempt to build Stadium Naples with brokerage A.S. Goldmen & Co.

D'Alessandro also declined to press theft charges related to the $196,000 in misspent golf tournament grant money.

In March 1999, the Daily News reported that D'Alessandro owned stock in a partner company in Rasmussen's second Stadium Naples during his investigation.

Local Republican Party leaders asked the governor to intervene, saying D'Alessandro's stock ownership raised questions about his probe.

D'Alessandro, a Republican who retired in January 2003 after 33 years as Southwest Florida's top elected prosecutor, denied he had a conflict.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, after conducting a review for Gov. Jeb Bush, suggested that federal prosecutors and the FBI reopen a criminal probe into Stadium Naples. Investigators found that D'Alessandro bought stock from brokers at A.S. Goldmen & Co. during his investigation, creating the appearance of a conflict of interest.

In July 1999, New York authorities indicted A.S. Goldmen owner Anthony Marchiano, a Naples resident, in a massive stock fraud scheme that implicated Rasmussen's second Stadium Naples proposal — the one in which D'Alessandro held an indirect stock interest. Later in July 2001, a Manhattan jury convicted Marchiano of racketeering. He is serving up to 30 years in prison.

FDLE investigators concluded D'Alessandro's probe wasn't compromised, but said more investigation into the relationship between Norris and Rasmussen was warranted.

Later, in February 2000, Mobley confessed his hedge fund scheme to officials at the Securities and Exchange Commission, a revelation that ignited another FBI probe. Numerous Naples families were swindled in Mobley's $120 million Maricopa Investments scheme that cost investors more than $60 million.

Certain to face significant prison time in the wake of his confession, Mobley began cooperating with authorities on the Stadium Naples corruption case and is slated to be the prosecution's star witness.

In May 2000, Norris entered a settlement with Florida's Commission on Ethics in which he admitted accepting unauthorized compensation, misusing his office, voting in conflict and taking an illegal gift from a lobbyist.

As part of his settlement, he agreed to pay a $35,000 fine. News of the settlement sparked calls for his suspension by the governor, a move that would have cost him a $12,000-a-year state pension.

He sought to back out of the Ethics Commission settlement, but the appointed panel refused.

The next day, prosecutors from D'Alessandro's office charged Norris with peddling his influence, or accepting unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior. Prosecutors said Norris' admissions in the ethics case weighed in the decision to bring criminal charges, a fact that later prompted Norris to file a malpractice suit against the Tallahassee attorney who represented him in the ethics case.

Later, prosecutors added racketeering, conspiracy and unlawful compensation charges against Norris. As their investigation snowballed, prosecutors charged Constantine with racketeering and influence peddling charges in connection with his $100,000 business loan from Mobley that was never paid back.

In December 2000, prosecutors charged Bob Hardy, one of Collier's most prominent developers, with conducting a conspiracy to give payoffs to Norris and Constantine. Prosecutors added a charge that Hardy paid Norris a $3,750 finder's fee on a Hardy real estate deal that was eventually supposed to net Norris $127,500.

In early 2001, defense attorneys filed motions asking acting Judge Lauren Miller to throw D'Alessandro off the prosecution for a conflict of interest on his earlier Stadium Naples related stock buys.

Miller took D'Alessandro to task in a scathing opinion and threw him off the case. In April 2001, Gov. Bush appointed Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle as special prosecutor and Rundle put Assistant State Attorney Michael Von Zamft in charge. FDLE assisted in a renewed investigation that resulted in Von Zamft filing criminal charges against 10 defendants on Oct. 11, 2001.

In all, eight of the 10 defendants have pleaded guilty or no contest to reduced or related charges. Only Constantine has served jail time.

On Monday, the trial of Norris and Paul Hardy is scheduled to begin in Sarasota.

© 2004 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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