And, of course, they buy off neighborhood associations.
Unfortunately, in Florida, payoffs to quasi-government associations don’t quite meet the legal definition of political bribery. In 2007, investigators in Pinellas County wired a developer who thought he was being shaken down by the president of a mobile home owners association. “Last time we met, you told me if I gave you 50 grand, you could make these problems go away,” the developer reminded the association president, who promised him, indeed, that he could make local opposition to his project disappear. “John, I do not go back on my f---ing word.”
But it wasn’t enough. An assistant state attorney explained to the Tampa Bay Times, “Some things aren’t right, but they don’t rise to the level of a crime.”
There was a time when developers tamped down opposition from homeowner and condo associations with in-kind sweeteners. They’d widen a road or fix a park or landscape the swales or erect some street lights. But the inducements have evolved into gobs of money. In 2006, even as Related was dredging up support for its condo towers in Coconut Grove, the company was paying $250,000 to the Northwood Coalition of Neighborhoods to make way for another condo project in West Palm Beach. Somehow, the homeowner association lost track of $34,350 of that money, according to the Palm Beach Post. The Post, reporting on the scandals associated with these money deals, also reported that a developer called Hovstone Properties Florida paid $25,000 to the officers of another association in Palm Beach Gardens, who divvied up the money among 11 homeowners — free to spend it as they wished. No civic improvements required.
Behavior that might get an elected official indicted on corruption charges goes unremarked among the board members of homeowner and condo associations. The infamous developers Bruce and Shawn Chait implicated a number of city and county commissioners in a bribery scandal as they sought the zoning changes needed to build 728 townhouses on two Tamarac golf courses. At the same time, the Chaits were greasing the adjacent homeowner associations with $1 million to get behind their controversial development. The Chaits, the infamous corrupters, had accidentally indulged in legal payoffs.
The Mercy Hospital project was unusual only in the giant sums Related promised two neighborhood groups. Related Chairman Jorge Pérez wrote in his 2009 book Powerhouse Principles: The Ultimate Blueprint for Real Estate Success in an Ever-Changing Market (with a foreword written by Donald Trump himself) that he had tried to keep the size of the promised Mercy payoffs, totaling nearly $8 million, secret, else that might inflate the cost of buying cooperation from other neighborhood groups. Hiaasen reported that during the trial, Pérez said payments to neighborhood associations have become routine. “I’m doing that on probably 10 projects right now.”
Certainly, the price has risen over the years. In 1993, Mercy Hospital paid these same two local neighborhood associations (representing the adjacent Natoma Manors and Bay Heights), $125,000 each to buy a little love for a hospital expansion.
This is just how developers do it. How controversial projects get approved and built in South Florida. And, as Judge Trawick noted, no matter how sleazy it looks, it’s legal.
Back in 2006, Marc Sarnoff, then president of the Coconut Grove Village Council, regretted that the two homeowner groups, for enough money, could forget about the traffic and congestion and three new high-rise towers spoiling the bayshore. “Traffic is traffic,” he warned the associations. “A dollar in your pocket won’t change that one iota.”