December 10, 2023

The Spoilers

Florida Staff | 6/1/2001
Call them Lightning Rods. Spoilers. Polarizers.

Who are the Floridians, Florida Trend asked, whose participation in business-related issues stirs up the most heat?

Too persuasive, too skilled or too effective to be dismissed as cranks, they bring uncommon passion and uncommon personality to the issues in which they engage. In some cases, they're people business loves to hate. In other cases, they're businesspeople.

What drives them, and why do those on the other side of an issue (and many on the same side) react so strongly to them?

Tampa: Jim Wilkes
Nursing Home Industry's Most Hated Man

Jim Wilkes is trying to add up the cases he's lost outright since he started suing nursing homes in 1986. Among more than 1,500, he needs only one hand to count the losses. "It's just amazing how awful the care is," he says. "So if you're able to present the facts, they either settle, or the jury goes against them."

Presenting facts on bedsores and soiled sheets, malnutrition, falls and worse, Wilkes and his Tampa law firm, Wilkes & McHugh, have gotten rich suing nursing homes for neglect. The firm, which collects an average of 40% of damages, won four of the biggest verdicts ever reached against Florida homes, including $15 million against Tampa's Brian Center for allowing a Korean War veteran to die of starvation and $20 million against St. Petersburg's Colonial Care Center for not feeding a man for a month and not treating his wounds, which developed gangrene.

Wilkes maintains that nursing homes are "inherently evil" and that he'd love to put them all out of business -- and himself out of a job. "The concept of warehousing the elderly this way is an anathema of dignity, fairness and courtesy," he says.

Evil is also the word used by people in the nursing home industry to describe Wilkes; it's fair to say he's the most hated man in the industry nationwide. He's been called "Satan," "Beelzebub" and the "Antichrist." The director of the Alabama Nursing Home Association called him "a migratory predator." The industry charges that Wilkes and his ilk have unfairly demonized nursing homes and are driving them into bankruptcy.

Wilkes takes pride in their hatred. He says the industry's greed speaks for itself, pointing to big severance agreements such as the $55 million negotiated with Robert Elkins, founder and CEO of bankrupt Integrated Health Services. "They shouldn't call their group Protect Our Parents," Wilkes says of the industry's advocacy organization. "They should call it Protect our Pocketbooks."

A Florida panel trying to come up with solutions to the state's nursing home crisis voted to make no recommendations last year over a lawsuit-cap proposal that was aimed largely at Wilkes. The industry says lawsuits will eventually sink most nursing homes in the state. Lawyers and many patient advocates argue the cap ignores fundamental reform in care. Perhaps to prove he doesn't mind putting himself out of business, Wilkes says he is pleased with a bill passed by the Legislature that combines limits on judgment awards with stricter care requirements at nursing homes in the state. He says his next goal is pushing alternative care in Florida. "I'm just happy to see the state focusing on elder care," he says. -- Cynthia Barnett

Palm Beach Gardens: Martin Weiss
Telling It Like It Is

Martin Weiss knows all too well what it's like to buck the establishment. Not that it's slowed him a bit.

In the 1980s, his firm, Weiss Ratings of Palm Beach Gardens, issued a scathing report questioning the savings and loan industry's use of goodwill valuations to prop up balance sheets. An S&L association executive "ripped into us for half an hour," Weiss recalls.

Things got worse when Weiss Ratings began rating insurance companies in the late 1980s. Again, Weiss went against the grain by issuing warnings on a number of insurance companies that had been given high marks by established ratings firms such as Moody's and A.M. Best. Some insurers threatened to sue. An insurance industry lobby waged a nationwide publicity campaign against Weiss and his fledgling firm, telling editors that Weiss had no credibility.

In both cases, as it turned out, Weiss' warnings were on the money. The S&L industry's reliance on goodwill -- an asset that reflects the difference in the cost of an acquisition and its book value -- didn't save the day. And five of the 10 troubled insurance companies highlighted by Weiss failed.

"We were the first to issue warnings on these (insurance) companies," says a trim, bookish-looking Weiss, who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Columbia University.

Weiss hadn't planned a career in financial services. He got a job on Wall Street as an investment analyst to help finance college costs. Today, Weiss Group, which is located in the same building as a private K-8 school he and his wife founded, has 120 employees and annual revenues of $20 million.

In the last few years, Weiss Research added stocks to its list. While most Wall Street ratings are oriented toward how much money an investor can make, Weiss says, his firm decided to issue risk-related ratings. Weiss Research now issues risk ratings ranging from "moderate" to "very risky" for 6,000 common stocks.

Next on his radar screen: Weiss wants to publish quality-of-care ratings of physicians and hospitals.

"Our job is to take so-called public data and really get it to the public," Weiss says. -- John Finotti

Tampa: Cornelius Cosentino
Problem-solver or Just a Problem?

Cornelius "Neil" Cosentino sees himself as a problem-solver. But in the Tampa business community, he's often seen more as a problem-creator. Cosentino got the ball rolling to save the historic Gandy Bridge, which is now a recreation trail across Tampa Bay, and was involved in triggering the effort to lure the 2012 Summer Olympics.

An Independent with a strong environmental bent, Cosentino runs what he refers to as a public interest "think tank" called Bay World Public Trust, which tends to pursue initiatives such as the Clean Millennium Movement to mop up from the "dirty" past millennium.

A former fighter pilot during three Vietnam tours in which he bombed bridges at times, he savors public issue battles such as, ironically, saving the Gandy Bridge. "It was a wonderful struggle. Touch-and-go at times."

Cosentino's personal attacks can sometimes undermine his positions. Dinah Bencomo, who worked with him on the Committee to Save the Gandy, says his "criticism and mistrust of public officials" often hurt his cause. Two years ago, when he ran for a state House seat in the Democratic primary, he was trounced by Liz Alpert. But that has not slowed his zeal for citizen politics -- zeal being the key. "If you don't put a lot into something, it's not worth much."

But his zeal can turn to self-righteousness. He bristles at comments that it was the committee's ideas that saved the bridge: "I did all the homework. Every idea in there was mine." -- Rod Thomson

Jacksonville: Marvin Edwards
Beating Up on the City's 'Syndicate'

It's OK to call Marvin Edwards a gadfly. He takes it as a compliment. In Jacksonville, Edwards, 79, has been a one-man citizen activist band since the late 1950s, when he argued that the city's property tax structure was short-changing public schools. A grand jury investigation proved him right. He's been railing against Jacksonville's establishment ever since.

Over the years, Edwards -- an investment counselor by profession -- has opposed everything from construction of the Dames Point Bridge to an ill-fated plan to build an offshore nuclear power plant to the city's Automated Skyway Express. A favorite target: Jacksonville's powerful business leaders -- or the "syndicate," as Edwards refers to them -- "who have excessive influence on elected officials." At the top of his "fat cats" list is Tom Petway, an insurance mogul who also is part owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and chairman of the Florida Board of Regents.

"The No. 1 job of government is to serve the general public, not special interests," Edwards says. "Jacksonville has a reputation of serving the special interests first. It's worse now than ever." Edwards is legendary among Jacksonville journalists for his files. A pack-rat extraordinaire, he has jammed his home office with letters, newspaper clippings and documents dating back to his years at New York University and a hitch in the Army Air Force. "At heart I'm a frustrated journalist interested in investigative work," he says.

Lately, Edwards, who's been writing a column for the city's alternative paper, Folio Weekly, for the past two years, has been questioning Mayor John Delaney's $2.1 billion Better Jacksonville Plan. He's also been throwing cold water on the city's triumph of getting the Super Bowl in 2005. "This city will take a beating on the Super Bowl," Edwards predicts.

In the meantime, Edwards, a native New Yorker who settled in Jacksonville with his family in the late 1940s, isn't letting up, even if his crusades can be lonely. "I have a lot of people say they're behind me," he deadpans. "Yeah, 50 miles behind me." -- John Finotti

Fort Lauderdale: Richard Grosso
Making Enemies, Crucial Decisions

Environmental lawyer Richard Grosso has known what his career path would be ever since junior high. Roaming around Miami as a kid in the 1970s during the high-rise boom, he'd ask his mother: "Who got to decide they could put a condo there, right where we used to go to the beach?"

"I always wanted to know who got to decide," he says. "And I always wanted to be one of the ones who got to decide."

As founder and director of the Environmental & Land Use Law Center at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Grosso has held sway in some significant land-use decisions, though he laments that overall the environment is poorly represented in most such decisions in Florida. Of the 2,000 environmental and land-use lawyers in the Florida Bar, Grosso is one of about two dozen who practice public-interest law full time. "Each and every time a land-use decision is made, the developer is represented by an attorney," Grosso says. "Only about 3% of the time is the other side represented, so it's hardly a fair fight."

Indeed, Grosso spends a lot of his time turning down citizens and groups seeking his help to fight developments in their neighborhoods or atop environmentally sensitive ecosystems. But when he does agree to take a case, developers and their lawyers gnash their teeth. One of his biggest coups: Convincing a circuit court judge that five Jensen Beach apartment buildings -- which cost a total of $3 million and are home to 24 families -- be torn down because the developers violated Martin County's growth-management plans. The case is currently on appeal.

Grosso has been working on efforts to limit environmental destruction in the Florida Keys throughout his career -- first as a lawyer for the Department of Environmental Regulation, later for 1000 Friends of Florida when it sought to strictly limit development until major protections such as wastewater treatment are in place, and now for Keys citizen and environmental groups.

He's made some particular enemies in Collier County, where the developers of a golf and country club called TwinEagles charge that he has caused their company to go bankrupt with his environmental lawsuits to stop the project.

"People like him don't want sound growth -- they want no growth, and they'll accept nothing less," says former Collier County Commissioner Barbara Berry, who chose not to run for re-election because of the acrimonious environmental battles in the county.

Grosso agrees the acrimony in Collier County is the worst he's seen. It has been one of the most difficult points in his career, he says. But he blanches at politicians, developers and lawyers who use no-growth rhetoric to stifle citizens. His other pet peeves: Developers' complaints that Florida's growth-management process is too restrictive, and land-use lawyers who lie to judges who aren't familiar with the complicated laws.

In the land-use law clinic he runs at Nova, Grosso teaches his students that the best lawyers don't demonize and that the best developers and their land-use lawyers work well with the environmental community. He tells them: "You get to decide how you're going to behave. You get to decide." -- Cynthia Barnett

Gainesville: Penny Wheat
Taking on Polluters, Big Business

Developers tried their darnedest to keep Penny Wheat from a fourth term on the Alachua County Commission last fall. But the lifelong Gainesville resident won 63% of the vote -- even though the billboard industry waged a fierce campaign against her, the hometown newspaper snubbed her and she raised less than half the campaign contributions her opponent took in.

Wheat, 46, has become a sort of folk hero to Alachua County's environmental and neighborhood groups -- and a villain to the business community. She became interested in politics in the mid-1980s after gasoline-contaminated water in a Gainesville neighborhood made her son ill. She helped pass a strict underground tank containment ordinance -- hard-fought by the petroleum industry -- that the state later adopted.

Wheat has not lost an election since her first county commission race in 1986 -- despite a considerable effort by foes, including the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association and the Gainesville Sun, which called Wheat the "no-compromise, always combative incumbent" and endorsed her opponent last fall.

Wheat advocates strict pollution controls and opposes subsidies to lure large companies into the county. Big companies hurt locally owned businesses that create 80% of the jobs, she says. "Penny Wheat is going to spend public dollars on the general public," she says, "not on wealthy corporations."

Last year, she led the county to ban new billboard construction; she has become a statewide spokeswoman against the industry she calls "litter on a stick." As for accusations that she won't compromise -- they're true. "I wasn't elected to convince people they should breathe half-clean air or their children should drink half-clean water," she says. "Perhaps the local daily newspaper owned by a large, out-of-state corporation (New York Times Co.) feels differently on these matters." -- Cynthia Barnett

Tallahassee: Rep. Lois Frankel
'Big, Bad, Brave and Bold'

Lois Frankel does nothing subtlely. Just look at her art. The state House Democratic leader from West Palm Beach has taken to transferring her doodles into impressive, colorful portraits. Her style is distinctly modern: Faces and patterns are contorted into geometric shapes, painted with clear, bold colors and outlined in thick black lines.

There are also no shades of gray in Frankel's liberal political ideology. In the past decade, she has challenged a Democratic governor for wanting to require all doctors to report to the state if they have the AIDS virus. She has drawn the wrath of religious groups for encouraging schools to set up health clinics on campus, which the groups claimed would promote the distribution of condoms.

She was vilified by the powerful tobacco lobby for imposing penalties on retailers that sell cigarettes to minors. And now, she blasts out e-mails by the hundreds condemning House Republicans for allowing "tax cuts for the rich" in the face of social service program cuts.

"Maybe it's the mother in me," says Frankel, 53, who has a 23-year-old son. "I have an underlying, absolutely gut-wrenching passion for justice. It just doesn't seem fair to me that a child, who arrives into the world through no account of his own, has no access to healthcare, education or is treated unfairly because of his race."

Frankel's secret to success is that she often teams up with a Republican to pass her bills and uses her trial lawyer skills to cut to the core of issues during debate. But her emotions are also her liability. She is known for her tirades against lobbyists, legislators and even fellow Democrats.

"She beats her chest and is big, bad, brave and bold; she terrifies people," says Lee Hinkle, president of FloridaFree, a business-backed political research group. "It is an approach that has been very effective for her as a legislator. But, as Democratic leader, it has created problems for her that she is trying to overcome."

She has struggled to keep her diverse Democrats loyal and is clearly more comfortable as the rabble-rousing minority than many of her colleagues. "I never felt I was in the majority," she says. Frankel now notes with some irony that many of the things she fought for years ago -- like child care standards and tobacco control -- are embraced by Republicans and even conservatives.

"You need people like me," she says. "People willing to take the bullet." -- Mary Ellen Klas

Sarasota: Dan Lobeck
A Developer's Worst Nightmare

Dan Lobeck's mission has been to make life miserable for developers and any politician whom he considers even remotely pro-development. He's no small potato, being a partner in a growing Sarasota law firm that specializes in representing homeowners and condominium associations. Lobeck was a driving force behind a movement in 1990 to impose a moratorium on most new construction. Voters soundly rejected the idea in a referendum, but many in the Sarasota business community still blame it for giving the area a reputation as business-unfriendly.

Lobeck has been tilting at windmills a long time. While in college in 1976 at the University of Florida, he took on the Florida Blue Key Club, a kind of old boys club and the source of most of the student leadership at UF. Lobeck ran for student body president -- and beat the windmill by winning the election.

With his victory, Lobeck says he never feared the big guys again. He turned into the anti-growth, anti-establishment watchdog he is today after watching the influence of lobbyists while a Senate aide in Tallahassee and the same special interests at the county commission level.

Lobeck's passion for his cause is both his strength and weakness: He tends to trip on his own hyperbole and fall into personal attacks that many say diminish his impact. For Lobeck, each new development plan is a corrupt sellout that will ruin the county; every new road is a payoff; every politician is in the back pocket of developers.

Sarasota County Commissioner Shannon Staub says that although there is "a grain of accuracy" in what he says, to businesses, "he's a pariah." -- Rod Thomson

Tallahassee: Jon Shebel
Psychological Warfare

In today's world of brass-knuckles politics, Jon Shebel not only furnishes the hardware, he lets everyone know he keeps the brass shined. For 29 years, Shebel has been president of Associated Industries of Florida, the business-lobbying group, and its affiliated workers' compensation insurance company. He has secured a place in Tallahassee's power circles through vigorous campaign fund raising, a career of influence-grooming and, most important, self-promotion.

Shebel, 60, is an ex-Marine Corps major and Citadel graduate who has controlled a business lobbying group longer than anyone in Tallahassee. A tall, genial man with a perpetual boater's tan and dark eyes, Shebel is mysterious about AIF's political operations -- except when it suits him. He won't discuss the association's membership list, its largely ceremonial board or even how many members pay dues.

But he distributes AIF's list of campaign contributions every election year and publishes an annual ranking of legislators based on their votes on business issues.

Those practices, along with his political recruiting and fund-raising unit, give Shebel force. But what has secured his reputation as an unyielding warrior on Tallahassee's battlefield is his psychological warfare.

"Everybody loves to hate Jon Shebel, but everybody does what Jon Shebel wants them to do," says Jodi Chase, Shebel's longtime lobbying partner. "He's not afraid of anything."

When the Florida Retail Federation provided startup funds for a political research organization, FloridaFree, Shebel considered the federation a competitor and voided its contract with AIF's online information services. When elected officials angered him, he funneled money and services to competitors. He is notorious for dispatching signed, biting letters to lobbyists and lawmakers. He once asked Senate President John McKay to resign from a litigation reform task force. He sent scathing letters to Florida Medical Association members criticizing John Thrasher, the former lobbyist who became House Speaker, and Sandra Mortham, the former secretary of state who became a FMA lobbyist.

In perhaps the most ferocious cut of all, Shebel distributed fliers at the end of the 2000 legislative session of a heavyset nude man floating face down in a pool. The caption read: "Jack Latvala says ... Goodbye to the Senate."

Latvala, a Palm Harbor state senator, skewered an AIF move on the last day of the 2000 session that would have cut the fees lawyers can collect in workers' compensation cases.

"He uses a scorched earth policy that has been effective in the past, but I'm not sure he isn't living on past accomplishments," says Latvala, who despite the threat handily won re-election.

This year, McKay allowed for some turnabout. He named Latvala chairman of the committee that oversees workers' compensation insurance, forcing Shebel to make peace with him -- and giving Latvala the upper hand. -- Mary Ellen Klas

Miami: Jim DeFede
Of 'Two-bit Political Whores' and 'Greedy Corporate Pigs'

"Micky Arison is a Greedy Corporate Pig." That's the headline that writer Jim DeFede wrote for his three-part Miami New Times series a few years back on how Carnival Corp. Chairman Arison and Knight-Ridder Chairman Tony Ridder managed to get a downtown arena built on Biscayne Bay for Arison's Miami Heat basketball team. The series was a DeFede tour de force: Giving south Florida readers of the alternative weekly the feel of the inside tale behind the arena in a much more readable way than the hometown Miami Herald -- and on a story involving the Herald's own corporate chieftain too.

DeFede, the franchise player for New Times since 1991, arrived in south Florida from a Spokane, Wash., daily with a background that runs against the typical journalism grain. At Colorado State University, from which he didn't graduate, he was elected student body president and served on the state's governing board for land-grant colleges and universities. When his term was up, he tried the campus newspaper.

DeFede's journalism hero is Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, whom he read as a boy in his native Brooklyn. DeFede, from his Miami Shores home, writes for Talk magazine, and his byline also has appeared in the New Republic and Newsday.

But most of his energy goes to focusing on "target-rich" Miami. Target No. 1 is -- DeFede's words -- "County Mayor Alex 'Klieg Lights' Penelas, never afraid to tackle an issue that has overwhelming public support." DeFede also wrote extensively against a plan to turn Homestead Air Force Base into a commercial airport and described Elian Gonzalez as "the single greatest destructive force in South Florida since Hurricane Andrew." His Elian views didn't endear him to a lot of Cuban Americans. DeFede says he worries about being marginalized as "having the angry Anglo view." But, he adds, "It's important for me to be honest to myself."

Tim Gallagher, spokesman for frequent New Times-subject Carnival, says DeFede's stock-in-trade is the personal attack within a rehash of someone else's reporting. What's more, Gallagher says, DeFede doesn't have much impact. "Most of the people -- and certainly the opinion leaders -- understand what the New Times is," Gallagher says.

Now that the Heat arena is open, DeFede can evaluate the finished project. He sees a senseless use of bayfront property for an indoor sport and a facility out of proportion to its surroundings. "I feel vindicated," DeFede says. "The arena is ugly. It's a monstrosity. Was Micky Arison a greedy corporate pig? Yes, he was." -- Mike Vogel

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