Mobile home park intrigue recorded

One man wants $50,000. The other wants a lawsuit to go away.


Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times


Published February 11, 2007

It could have been a scene from a Hollywood movie.

A man in a tropical print shirt greets a second guy at a waterside restaurant. "Hey, buddy, how are you? You want a coffee or anything?" He doesn't.

Small talk finished, the conversation assumes a darker tone.

Tropical shirt man asks him if he knows anyone else on the dock. He wants the other guy to feel comfortable. He does.

With that, talk shifts to the deal. The second man promises to make a troublesome lawsuit disappear and, if elected mayor, to make sure tropical shirt man's projects receive city approval. In exchange, tropical shirt man would give the second man "water," code for $50,000 in cash.

But this is no Hollywood movie - it's a surveillance tape recorded in October by Pinellas County sheriff's investigators at McDonald's in Madeira Beach.

The two men were on opposite sides of a public debate over the fate of a Seminole mobile home park. But this talk between developer and mobile home activist was private. At least that's what one of them thought.

Discussion of a payout

Prominent developer John Loder bought Bay Pines Mobile Home Park. He wanted to turn it into condominiums.

But Leo Plenski, the park's homeowners association president, was making it difficult. The association had filed a lawsuit to overturn the $38-million sale.

About this same time, Plenski announced his plans to run for Seminole mayor, to give mobile home residents a bigger voice.

Then, sometime in September, Loder told his lawyers that Plenski offered to make the lawsuit go away - for a price. Plenski also promised his votes, should he be elected mayor, Loder said.

Loder's attorneys decided to bring in the authorities. Sheriff's investigators wired Loder and sent him to meet with Plenski to discuss the alleged offer.

The videotape is one of three that were made over seven days in late September and early October. In all three, the men discussed the $50,000 payout, which, Plenski said, was the fair market price for his mobile home.

The payment would be in cash. And the title would show a purchase price of $1,500. The money would not be shared with other residents.

However, though Plenski repeatedly nodded, shook Loder's hand and promised his votes and cooperation with ending the lawsuit, he never took the money.

After the third meeting ended Oct. 3, deputies detained Plenski in the McDonald's parking lot and took him in for questioning.

A few hours later, they released him and sent the 84 minutes of tape to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

Plenski was never charged.

Not enough evidence

Assistant State Attorney Bob Lewis said there just wasn't enough evidence.

"Some things aren't right," he said. "But they don't rise to the level of a crime."

It might have been different if Plenski had taken the money. During the pair's final meeting, Plenski indicated that he would take it at the next meeting.

But he never got the chance because deputies stepped in before the final meeting.

Why they did so is a question that perplexes Sam Fazzio, a former board member of the Bay Pines Homeowners Association, who has seen the videotapes.

"Clearly, Leo says, 'I'll let you know next week,' " Fazzio said.

Pinellas County sheriff's spokesman Jim Bordner said the decision to proceed no further came from discussions with three members of the State Attorney's Office.

They thought, Bordner said, the situation would not rise to the level of a crime and that going further might jeopardize the homeowners' lawsuit against Loder.

"If it's not criminal, it's morally wrong," Fazzio said of Plenski's actions. "We expected to go the whole nine yards, and it seemed like in the seventh yard Leo had abandoned us."

The feeling of abandonment began before the association's board of directors found out about Plenski's covert meetings with Loder.

Plenski had begun to warn board members that they could be held personally liable for the association's lawsuit, Fazzio said. It appeared, he said, as if Plenski was trying to scare them into dropping the lawsuit.

If Plenski really was just stringing Loder along, he should have told the board, Fazzio said.

Fazzio said he was not accusing Plenski of breaking the law, but "it just looks crazy. ... Even if the intent was not to take a bribe, (people) think that's exactly what he was doing."

Neither Plenski nor Loder returned calls for comment Friday.

But in October, Plenski denied the charges, saying he suspected he was being set up and was only playing along.

In the end, Plenski lost his leadership of the Bay Pines board. The group settled with Loder after the developer agreed to pay them a little more than what the state requires ($1,375 for a single-wide and $2,750 for a double-wide for homes that could not be moved).

He also gave them $75,000 for attorney fees, which the group has used to help fund a lawsuit against the Seminole law firm DeLoach and Hofstra, administrators for the trust that owned the park and sold it to Loder.

The homeowners contend that they have a contract that promised that the park, 10005 Bay Pines Blvd., would remain a mobile home park until 2020.

That case is working its way through the court system.

What's found on tape

Plenski: "I don't see why not. ... I think we could get most of (the homeowners) out of there."

Loder: "I need to know what I'm going to get for the 50 grand."

Plenski: "That's my place; that's worth 50 grand."

More transcript, Page 10

What's on the tapes?

Most of the conversations center on the situation at Bay Pines Mobile Home Park and Leo Plenski's alleged offer to developer John Loder.

At one point, Plenski suggests that he will make Loder a building official when he becomes mayor. Another time, he says one of the first things he will do as mayor is to fire the city manager. In between, there is small talk about everything from sports to Loder's hat size and a back injury that the developer sustained because his wife was making him do yoga.

Here are some excerpts from the first tape made Sept. 27:

John Loder: "I've been wrestling with the offer you made me. ... I don't know if it's changed."

Leo Plenski: "Well, we're looking for the solution here."

Loder: "This lawsuit's still a pain in my a--."

Plenski: "Sure, it is. Sure, it is."

Plenski talks about the situation at Bay Pines and the stress homeowners are undergoing. He also talks about the need for a solution.

Loder: "Yeah, but can you still deliver me a solution?"

Plenski: "Yeah. I think so. I think so."

Loder: "I've been wrestling with this idea because to me, it didn't seem right. But I'm a businessman, and you made me an offer. So, is the number still the same?"

Plenski: "I don't see why not. ... I think we could get most of (the homeowners) out of there."

Loder: "I need to know what I'm going to get for the 50 grand."

Plenski: "That's my place; that's worth 50 grand."

Plenski suggests that Loder could increase the amount he was planning to pay to the other homeowners, and Loder insists that he would pay only the state-mandated amounts.

Loder: "Last time we met, you told me if I gave you 50 grand, you could make these problems go away."

Plenski: "You pay me what my place is worth, yeah, I'd get out, no question about it."

After some more conversation, Plenski again suggests that Loder could increase his payments to the other homeowners. Loder refuses.

Plenski: "You're sure on that?"

Loder: "I'm sure."

They discuss the court case, and Loder says his position is strong. He repeats that the only reason he's meeting Plenski is because of Plenski's offers.

Loder: "You'd make the suit go away?"

Plenski: "Yeah, I think we can make the suit go away."

Loder: "Okay."

Loder says $50,000 is a lot of money, especially when everyone else is getting only the state-mandated amount. Then he refers to Plenski's statement that he was running for Seminole mayor.

Loder: "Let's stay on point here. You're running for mayor. ... You've got a strong chance."

Plenski: "Yeah, I know."

Plenski says the morning's paper has a story that Seminole council member Jimmy Johnson announced his mayoral candidacy. Johnson, Plenski says, is a "bad candidate."

Loder: "Like I said the last time, I pay you 50 grand and you become mayor. You're the biggest, you're the biggest spur in my saddle. Do I got your vote on what I need to do?"

Plenski: "Sure."

Loder: "You promise me that?"

Plenski: "John, I do not go back on my f---ing word."

Loder: "Okay."

Plenski: "To be completely honest with you, when I say it's that way, it's that way, and it's over and I don't even want to discuss it."

Loder: "Well, I need to discuss it."

Plenski: "No, I mean, after it's said, it's said and it's over."