WEST PALM BEACH — Former developer Paula Ryan is set to be sworn in as a City of West Palm Beach commissioner in April without having had to raise money or debate an opponent.
On her way to the halls of power Ryan, 55, wasn’t vetted by voters.
And when she’ll materialize on the dais for the first time, taxpayers are likely to ask: Who dat?
Democrat Ryan put in for the seat left vacant by long-time Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, who’s trying to knock down incumbent Mayor Jeri Muoio in a bare-knuckles election March 10.
No one challenged Ryan, a former mayoral candidate who worked as the city’s interim housing and economic development director under the administration of former Mayor Lois Frankel.
So Ryan, who is supporting Muoio, became an elected official by default.
Unlike the rest of the press, however, Gossip Extra checked into Ryan’s history.
And what we found could give the residents of West Palm Beach pause.
This much is obvious: Ryan’s background is somewhat different from what she likes to portray, the image of a super successful self-made businesswoman.
If you believe statewide and federal court records, Ryan’s road through the business world and her personal history are littered with bumps, and that’s no doubt something she’ll have to address if she runs for her seat in 2016.
For example, one of Ryan’s development companies was ordered to pay $1 million for breach of contract!
“I built and developed and managed 10,000 units (apartments) all over this country for 23 years,” Ryan tells Gossip Extra. “And each one is its own headache.
“You know how litigious the real estate business is. That’s why I got out of it.”
And in one of her divorces, the judge described her family as “terribly dysfunctional” and ordered her to “refrain from using intoxicants while driving and educate herself about alcohol abuse” in order for her to keep custody of their son.
“You can’t really judge this case without going through the 10 years of motions and transcripts,” says Ryan, who’s now married to land use lawyer Cliff Hertz.
In business, Ryan lost more than a dozen lawsuits brought against the numerous corporations named with variances of the words White Oak, corporations Ryan created to build affordable housing units throughout the state and elsewhere.
Ryan lost at least one lawsuit by default, simply because she didn’t show up in court. That one, brought by debt collector Recovar, cost her $5,400.
Ryan managed to stay off the press’ radar because a lot of the paperwork that portrays her in an unflattering light is in Orlando and Tampa, and federal courts.
Among our findings:
— Ryan companies were involved in three bankruptcies, including one in which she reported losses between $1 million and $10 million. She blamed the twin hurricanes of 2004, which increased the insurance prices of her apartments
— Her White Oak Brandon Creek company, which developed a housing complex near Tampa, was ordered to pay $1 million to coin-operated laundry equipment owner Coinmach. Coinmach won a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County. Said Ryan: “A part of their income was supposed to be paid to the complex and they weren’t paying. So I had them remove all of their equipment from the property, and they sued for the balance of the contract.”
— Ryan lost another breach-of-contract lawsuit brought against her by an investment firm involved in a real estate venture in Maitland. Ryan’s White Oak Heritage Pointe company built the place. But after nearly a year of legal entanglements, Ryan was ordered to pay the firm $163,000.
If her business life was less than sterling in the mid-to-late 200os, court records indicate that her personal life suffered, too.
Through the 1990s, Ryan and ex-husband Stuart Loten went at it in court after Loten filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.
The court files hint that Ryan had a drinking or a drug problem. Witnesses told the judge in the case that Ryan used to carry a few joints in her purse, and sipped wine while driving the car.
While there is no record of an arrest for DUI, the final judgment in the divorce shows that she may have been driving the couple’s boy while impaired.
Among the conditions of her keeping the kids, she was ordered to “refrain from using intoxicants while driving and educate herself about alcohol abuse.”
Said Ryan: “This divorce went on for a decade. And in the end, I retained the custody of our son.”
While she says she’s retired from the real estate business — indeed, she let her realtor’s license lapse — Ryan says she’s busy building her personal life back up after 18 years without a mate.
Over the past four years, Ryan’s been volunteering for several non-profits and she’s running a small internet reputation management company. She also worked on President Barack Obama‘s 2012 campaign.
As for her income, she says she’s still making developer’s fees from a 108-unit affordable housing complex near Tampa.
In the meantime, Ryan hopes her upcoming year on the commission will help rebuild her reputation as an administrator.
As WPB’s interim housing boss in 2006, she was accused of mishandling federal funds allocated to repairing the homes of low income residents damaged in hurricanes.
An audit showed that Ryan hired a friend who was a contractor to handle the work without putting it out to bids. In time, the contractor overcharged the city by more than $350,000.
Ryan also leaned on staff to expedite work on the homes of two of her friends.