WEST PALM BEACH — Several coordinated attacks on developers vying for valuable downtown West Palm Beach land may have been funded by billionaire rival Jeff Greene, Gossip Extra has learned.
And the efforts estimated to have cost a total $250,000 were likely spearheaded behind the backs of local public officials by a former member Florida House of Representatives and a cadre of helpers from locales as far away from the city as Clearwater.
In an exclusive interview, Greene denied he had anything to do with the campaigns and professed his respect for his rivals.
That, however, doesn’t change the fact the negative campaigning was swift and brutally efficient.
In September, mailers bad-mouthing The Related Companies and its One Flagler project landed in thousands of mailboxes of residents and elected officials in and around downtown.
The mailers painted downtown living if the project was approved by the West Palm Beach City Commission as a traffic-choked horror akin to downtown Miami.
In time, the commission struck down the 25-floor project, handing Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and his cohort atop The Related, the builder of CityPlace, a rare defeat in West Palm Beach.
And in July, a first attack made New York builder Charles S. Cohen look like a racist who cares more about his position on the Forbes 400 Richest Americans than disabled and minority workers.
The campaign started the minute Cohen expressed his interest in the prized vacant “Tent Site” at the corner of Okeechobee Boulevard and South Dixie Highway.
But five months ago a ticked off Cohen, a billionaire nearly three times over, offered $25,000 for information leading to the exposure of what he calls “the wrongdoers” who called city commissioners to ask that Cohen’s proposals for the site be rejected.
We, at Gossip Extra, couldn’t resist Cohen’s challenge since the alleged local corporate media are unable to dig. And while we didn’t call Cohen’s special hotline to rate out “wrongdoers,” although we’ll take his money if he insists, we spent a few weeks trying to figure out who stood to profit the most from Cohen’s rumors and how the campaign was organized.
Several sources close to the downtown land battles tell us the campaigns were orchestrated by The Merchant Strategy, a West Palm Beach-based political PR firm led by former Florida State Representative Sharon Merchant.
The anti-Related’s mailer, for example, read like it was sent by a group called Coalition for Reasonable Development. We investigated and found out no group with that name exists in Florida.
The return address, however, is real — and it’s the address of Merchant’s office, 1804 North Dixie Highway.
Ultimately, the sources said, her client could’ve been Jeff Greene, who has invested heavily in downtown development and was the only developer actually quoted in the mailer.
One of the sources, Trump Plaza of The Palm Beaches Condominium Association President Abe Bernstein, didn’t make any secret the association hired Merchant.
In an interview, Bernstein told us The Related’s One Flagler building would block the view on the Intracoastal and Palm Beach for Trump Plaza dwellers, and create crippling traffic problems.
Bernstein declined to say how much the association paid Merchant – but it is highly unlikely any condo owners association in the world would spend a quarter million dollars on negative campaigning.
When we brought up to Bernstein that Trump Plaza was doing Greene a huge favor by going against The Related, Bernstein admitted he knew Greene’s position on the downtown projects.
“Jeff Greene says he might not be able to build his project if The Related goes ahead,” Bernstein said. “That would be a shame because we support Jeff Greene’s projects.”
Would he feel the same about Cohen’s plan for Tent Site?
“We don’t have a position on that yet,” Bernstein said.
When reached in her office Friday, Merchant admitted her company produced the mailer and lobbied against The Related. She said her client was indeed Trump Plaza.
“You can name yourself whatever you want, it’s not illegal,” Merchant said of the deceptive name of the non-existent group that sent the mailer. We also found out the pamphlet was produced and mailed by Roger “Rocky” Pennington, a Republican strategist based in Clearwater with no stake in downtown West Palm Beach. “But we polled residents and opinions and it’s factually accurate. There is a coalition of people in West Palm Beach who want reasonable development.”
Merchant denied her firm had a hand in the anti-Cohen campaign of the summer and said “I never worked for Jeff Greene.”
Her firm, however, has the talent and wherewithal to orchestrate negative campaigning.
During the anti-Cohen push in July, dozens of black callers, including some with Caribbean accents calling from Broward County, left voice mails on the phones of Mayor Jeri Muoio and commissioners to ask that they not even consider billionaire Cohen’s proposal.
In that, some saw the mark of Sophia Nelson, Merchant’s public involvement specialist.
According to her biography on Merchant’s website, Nelson is portrayed as someone capable of raising issues within the black community. Her bio says she started The Caribbean Democratic Club of Palm Beach County as well as Broward Power Partners, a pressure group.
The callers pointed out that Cohen, the 55-year-old No. 270 on the Forbes 400 richest Americans with $2.8 billion, has been accused on lawsuits to be a racist, and the city shouldn’t do business with a racist.
They told city officials Cohen doesn’t hire blacks for top management of his Manhattan-based Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation. And they cited an incident where a party scheduled to be held in in one of Cohen’s Los Angeles buildings for rapper Snoop Dogg was once cancelled because, that lawsuit reads, Mr. Cohen doesn’t like black people.
Merchant said she doesn’t know what Nelson does when she’s not working for her.
“Sophia doesn’t work for me full time,” Merchant said. “She also has her own business, so you need to ask her about that.”
We did. And Nelson said it wasn’t her, although she understood why people would ask if she did.
“I know why you’re asking,” Nelson said. “But I wouldn’t participate in something like this. That would place Sharon (Merchant) in a bad situation and I would never do that.”
Who was calling the shots then?
History shows Jeff Greene has been extremely vocal about protecting his downtown interests, and sees any move by rival developers as a personal affront. And Greene, who is even richer than Cohen since he is now in 215th position on the Forbes 400 with $3.4 billion, would think nothing of spending $250,000 on behind-the-scenes campaigns.
“Of course it’s not me,” Greene said Friday. “I like (The Related Companies’) Steve Ross and Charles Cohen. And I’m looking forward to Charles doing more things in and around the city.”
Incidentally, look for more nonsense over the next few months: The city issued a request for proposals for the Tent Site Friday.