GOP choice for House speaker in 2014 faces personal financial troubles

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By John Frank and Marc Caputo

Published February 25, 2010

TALLAHASSEE A top Republican selected Tuesday as the future speaker of the Florida House can't get his own financial house in order.

The home of Rep. Chris Dorworth of Lake Mary is in foreclosure. He is struggling to pay a $2.7 million legal judgment from a bad land deal. And his driver's license was temporarily suspended this month after what he called a misunderstanding with his car insurer.

But the financial struggles didn't stop Dorworth, 33, from earning the votes of his Republican colleagues, who anointed him as House speaker for 2014 in a battle that ended last weekend when his main rival, Rep. Erik Fresen of Miami, quit the race.

Dorworth financed his bid to become speaker through his re-election campaign fund and his political committee, Citizens for an Enterprising Democracy. A good portion more than 30 percent, or $40,000-plus went into his pocket for reimbursements in the past two years, records show.

Among the recent expenses: a $600 flight to Miami for the Super Bowl and a $527 stay at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.

Dorworth said all the expenses were legitimate but acknowledged they don't look good given his financial situation and the dismal economy. He said a campaign for the top post in the House requires a candidate to travel the state, raising and spending big sums to win other lawmakers' support.

"It's a Catch-22 for me," Dorworth said. "If I sit around and do absolutely nothing, then people say, 'Hey man, this guy's got a lot of stuff going on and he's not doing anything.' But if I go out, then you say, 'You're gallivanting around the state.' I clearly don't gallivant. If you've ever seen me before, I'm not a gallivanter."

Fresen, who garnered just a handful of commitments for speaker, is not immune from problems. His home also is subject to foreclosure after what he says was a misunderstanding with his mortgage company.

In a statement, Fresen said he ended his bid to help unite the party.

The contest to choose a new House speaker every two years is essentially a popularity contest among lawmakers in the majority party, financed by special interest groups with a major stake in future legislation. Even though the speaker is one of the three most powerful people at the helm of state government (along with the Senate president and the governor), the public has no voice in the selection.

A fight for speaker is an intensely personal, member-to-member competition that sometimes can lead to major problems as in the case of former Speaker Ray Sansom, the popular but troubled Destin Republican who resigned from the House on Sunday and faces criminal charges in connection with his budget dealings.

Dorworth appeared destined last year to assume the helm, but when the Republican Party of Florida's controversial chairman, Jim Greer, began promoting Dorworth, the mood changed. A number of Republicans were uncomfortable with what they saw as outside involvement in their internal caucus politics.

"There was some grumbling," said Rep. Bill Galvano, a term-limited Republican from Bradenton with no connection to the battle for speaker.

Greer's involvement "didn't help,'' said Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican who represents Seminole County with Dorworth. "It almost hurt."

Plakon said that he knew Dorworth had financial troubles but that it didn't concern him because it's the nature of Dorworth's business, real estate. He called Dorworth a "natural leader" who hasn't run away from his problems.

"It's a different issue than Ray (Sansom)," Plakon said. Dorworth "is in real estate and it's not a secret that real estate is struggling these days."

Dorworth's financial troubles began in November 2007, the same month he was first elected.

On Nov. 7, the day after he won, Dorworth, his business partner and their company, Metro Orlando Development Group, were named in a lawsuit concerning a problematic $8 million land deal.

Dorworth said his company bought a 70-acre plant nursery in Oviedo the prior year for a housing development, but the land was worthless because it was tainted with arsenic. Lew Oliver, an investor in the deal and the then-Republican Party chairman in Orange County, filed a suit to recover the $1.7 million invested by his company, TG&O Holdings.

Dorworth and partner Jim Stelling, a former Seminole County GOP boss, never repaid the money, so Oliver went back to court. In June 2009, the judge upped the ante, ordering them to pay $2.7 million, court records show.

Stelling declared bankruptcy, so Dorworth owes the bulk of the judgment. As part of the deal, Oliver took control of Dorworth's company, Metro Orlando, state incorporation records show.

Oliver can also repossess the Dorworths' assets, including cars and jewelry, but hasn't taken that step so far, Dorworth said.

The same month Oliver originally filed the lawsuit, Dorworth stopped paying the full loan on a six-bedroom, 10-bathroom home purchased in 2005 for $1.2 million, according to a foreclosure proceeding filed by his mortgage company, Bank of New York Trust Co.

Dorworth and his wife, Elizabeth, borrowed $1.5 million with monthly payments totaling nearly $10,000, according to Seminole County court records.

The bank moved to foreclose in March 2008 after Dorworth refused to pay a $1,000-a-month windstorm insurance policy, he said. The total amount in dispute now reaches $20,000, and Dorworth hopes to enter mediation.

Suspension of his driver's license was related to insurance issues, but another problem involved his failure to pay highway tolls. In both cases, Dorworth said it was a glitch and fixed it quickly.

"It is a bit unfair to take one particular snapshot in time today and say, 'What a train wreck this has become,' " he said. "I think what most people would suggest is that having been a part of this makes me more sensitive to what business owners in this state are going through. I have lived it firsthand."

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