Lawmaker seeking reelection faces questions over finances

In disclosure forms filed in June, state Rep. Erik Fresen presents a picture of financial health, earning $225,000 last year with just $103,000 in outstanding debts for student loans.

But the Republican lawmaker’s finances are murkier than they first appear. There’s the $29,000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service that remains unpaid. There’s the $10,000 citation for a code violation. And there’s the longstanding foreclosure lawsuit that nearly cost Fresen his Little Gables home.

As Fresen seeks a third term in the Legislature, he is being challenged in the Republican primary by first-time candidate Amory Bodin, who is making an issue of Fresen’s finances on the campaign trail. The two will square off in the Aug. 14 primary in newly created District 114, which stretches from northern Coral Gables through West Miami to Cutler Bay.

“Tax liens are the type of thing you don’t leave hanging over your head,” said Bodin, an accountant who lives a few blocks away from Fresen. “Is that a guy you want handling your $70 billion budget?”

Fresen, a land-use consultant, said the foreclosure stems from a dispute with a mortgage lender over property taxes dating back to the purchase of his home in 2006. He says Bodin seems motivated more by personal grievance than political differences.

“He really hasn’t stated any policy differences besides ‘I don’t like Erik Fresen,’” Fresen said of his GOP opponent. “I feel incredibly confident about the campaign.”

Fresen’s profile in Tallahassee increased last year when he was one of the chief sponsors of failed legislation aiming to allow casino gambling at “destination resorts” — a bill backed by Genting Group, the Malaysian conglomerate with plans for a casino on The Miami Herald site. Fresen also served for about a year and a half as chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party.

But Fresen has been dogged by questions about his personal finances since 2008, when a lender filed a foreclosure suit against Fresen, his wife and his mother. The mortgage company filed suit after Fresen failed to make payments in May 2008, court records show.

Fresen says the lender tried to double-bill him for $14,000 in property taxes on the house, taxes he said he paid at closing when he bought the house in 2006. (The home was actually purchased by Fresen’s mother, who transferred the deed to Fresen and his wife a month later, records show.) He says the bank sued after he refused to pay the extra amount.

“They would not accept anything but the total amount,” said Fresen, who calls the lawsuit a “legal nightmare.” Fresen said in court papers that he tried to “cure” the default before the foreclosure suit was filed in 2008.

In 2009, a judge ordered the sale of Fresen’s house to pay off a $641,000 judgment, court records show. But in February 2010 — only days before the scheduled sale — the judge rescinded the order because the bank had failed to notify other parties with claims against Fresen and his mother, records show.

No new sale date was ever set, though the foreclosure suit is still pending, court records show.

Fresen said the case has been slowed because the mortgage has transferred among several banks, but he’s confident the case will be settled soon.

“I can more than cover my mortgage,” Fresen said. “I’m willing to pay whatever must be paid.”

The mortgage, however, does not appear as a debt listed in Fresen’s financial disclosure forms filed with the state. A Miami woman has filed an ethics complaint against Fresen saying he failed to disclose both the mortgage and the foreclosure suit, records show.

Fresen said he doesn’t believe he’s obligated to list the mortgage among his debts because it’s effectively suspended — he says he hasn’t paid the mortgage company in months. “They’re not billing anything,” he said.

Property records and court records show that the mortgage on Fresen’s home is in his mother’s name, not his own. But Fresen says he is responsible for the mortgage, and it appears on his credit report.

Fresen is also facing a $29,199 lien filed by the IRS in May 2011 for taxes owed from 2004 and 2007, records show. Fresen said the 2007 portion of the lien also stems from taxes levied on the money at the heart of the mortgage dispute, and said his accountant is still trying to learn the source of the 2004 tax bill.

In addition, Fresen is trying to remove a $10,000 lien filed on his house by the Miami-Dade Building Department for a code-enforcement violation. The lien was filed over a pool fence erected without obtaining a final permit. Fresen said the contractor was supposed to obtain the final permit and never did; the contractor called the county last week to renew the permit, records show.

Bodin says this string of debts shows that Fresen isn’t responsible enough to be a lawmaker.

“I think you can judge him as a candidate by his finances,” Bodin said. “That’s fair game. If you don’t think that it’s important, what else is important?”

Bodin said he felt Fresen was unresponsive to the district, but he decided to run after Fresen backed the casino bill. He has also criticized Fresen’s ties to the charter-school industry: Fresen, who sits on a key House education committee, works for Civica, an architecture firm that frequently does work for Academica, which receives millions in public dollars as the state’s largest charter-school operator. Academica’s president is Fresen’s brother-in-law.

“When the public funds start leaking into that, that starts raising a question,” Bodin said.

Fresen has long maintained that his work with Civica poses no conflict, and he said Bodin never approached him to raise his concerns as a constituent.

“If you think I’m doing such a horrible job, you’d think he would try to meet with me once,” Fresen said.

If re-elected, Fresen said he would focus on changing the formula for public-school funding and for reforms in higher education. He also wants to pass more comprehensive gambling legislation that would address not just casino resorts but also the state compact with the Seminole Tribe.

Bodin, who said he objected to Fresen’s casino bill, said if elected he would propose changes to Florida’s windstorm insurance system and the state pension system to make them more financially viable.

Bodin’s campaign seems like a long shot. He’s raised only about $10,000 in outside campaign donations, compared to about $148,000 Fresen has collected through July 19, records show.

The winner of the Republican primary will have to face Democrat Ross Hancock in the general election on Nov. 6.