Monday, October 23, 2006

Sembler's shameful dalliance with political gadfly Doug Guetzloe

by Wes Fager

Anyone who has followed local politics the past 20 years knows that Doug Guetzloe is the king of sleaze campaigns... Politics of the gutter and fringe are Guetzloe's stock in trade. The only real mystery surrounding Mr. Guetzloe is who pays to support his tactics that divide and embarrass this community.
.......An editorial comment by Orlando Sentinel, 10-08-06

Note: this story is based on a series of articles appearing in the Orlando Sentinel in 2005 and 2006.)


For the rest of time there are three subjects that will forever be taboo at Sembler cocktail parties: penile pumps, Charlie Crist's sexual orientation and Doug Guetzloe.

World politics revolves around oil, except for Florida which has no natural oil. In Florida politics revolves around road building (and other infrastructures.) Take the Sembler Company, for example. This powerful building giant builds shopping centers around Florida (and elsewhere around the southeast and Puerto Rico). In 2005, Florida state Representative Randy Johnson (R-Celebration) introduced an Infrastructure Funding Bill for roads, schools and water facilities authorizing funds of $8.25 billion over 10 years. As part of the bill developers will have to pay a share on development costs for projects from which they will benefit. When the Johnson Bill passed on May 6, 2005 Rep. Johnson said, "People are going to see mass infusion of infrastructure repair and widening on their roads.''

Rep. Randy Johnson has made $8.25 billion available but he has required that builders pay for some of the newly required infrastructures if they are benefiting from the infrastructures. So naturally, if you are a builder, a man like Randy Johnson is a man you want to be on the good side of. Three months after The Johnson Infrastructures Bill was passed, on Aug. 11, 2005 Sembler gave $5,000 in individual $500 donations (the max allowed per individual or company is $500) to Johnson's campaign. But if you looked at those contributions only one actually goes by the name Sembler:

We wonder whether this is campaign contribution fraud by circumventing the $500 cap to political contributions. But that's another story.)

Anyway, in 2005 Sembler Company won a very heated debate to get permission to build a $120 million, open-air shopping mall in Orange County Florida on a former grove land south of State Road 50 in Winter Garden. The center will be called Fowler Grove Mall. To help convince the city fathers that they should allow Sembler to build the mall in Winter Garden, Sembler hired attorney Hal Kantor of the prestigious Orange County law firm of Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed. Kantor donated $500 himself to Randy Johnson on June 30, 2005.

At the same time Sembler was trying to develop in Winter Garden, a developer named Allan Keen and two partners were trying to develop another property in Orange County, this one in Winter Park. This is the controversial Carlisle development, controversial because it features a massive structure much larger than anything else in the surrounding area.

Thus there were two controversial projects in Orange County that many did not want, so the principals, Sembler Company and Keen's group, contacted Hal Kantor, and Kantor in turn hired a local radio talk show host, political consultant and overall gadfly by the name of Doug Guetzloe to do public relations for his two clients.

Doug Guetzloe is a story all to himself . In 1982 Guetzloe helped start the citizens group Ax the Tax. Today he is a political commentator with his own radio talk show THE GUETZLOE REPORT "the Voice of the people." Bill O'Reilly has been a guest on his show. Doug Guetzloe was president of the student body at Florida State University. His vice president was Charlie Crist. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, student groups tried to recall Guetzloe, accusing him of using his position to persecute political enemies. Twice he ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the Florida Senate. In 1988 he orchestrated a takeover of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee by religious fundamentalists. That same year he was accused by fellow Republicans of forging Ronald Reagan's signature in a client's campaign literature--leading to an inquiry by the White House. In 2003 he was voted off the Orange County Republican Executive Committee for supporting Buddy Dyer over his Republican opponent in the mayor's race. In 1994 he was tried and acquitted of a grand-theft charge related to his over billing of a political client. The list of his shenanigans seems almost endless, but here's a few more gleaned from the local press:

*Alex Martins, Chief Operating Officer for the Orlando Magic has stated that the team paid Guetzloe $200,000 to keep him from launching a campaign to kill a new arena and other major projects. He says the payments were arranged by the Magic's attorney Hal Kantor. Hotel magnate Harris Rosen has said through his attorney that Guetzloe approached him about funding a campaign to fight the new Magic arena for a $20,000 fee.

*The Orange County school district's attorney said Guetzloe made the implied threat that if Guetzloe was not hired as a political consultant he would fight a proposed tax hike that would benefit the school district.

*In 2005 Guetzloe's people worked to convince Osceola County taxpayers that a county convention center was a bad deal while his consulting firm was being paid more than $87,000 by the Gaylord Palms Resort, which was pushing its own plan for a competing facility.

*In 2005 Doug Guetzloe held a news conference to defend Jan Hall, a teacher under fire for writing a letter to a congressman critical of immigrants. The letter caused protests by local Hispanics and made national news before getting Ms. Hall fired. Guetzloe announced he was filing a $20 million lawsuit against the Orange County school district and that, "We will be establishing a legal defense fund for Mrs. Hall. I'm doing it pro bono." Thirteen months later, Ms. Hall was still unemployed and she said she never got any of the money Guetzloe raised on her behalf. The money went to Guetzloe's for-profit corporation called Ax the Tax Inc.

The Orlando press knows that Doug Guetzloe is the "king of sleaze campaigns" whose stock and trade is "politics of the gutter." The press just wants to know who pays to support his tactics that "divide and embarrass its community." The answer is Sembler Company and Keen's group to name two. Sembler and Keen hired Guetzloe, despite his reputation, to help them convince city officials to approve their projects. In a nine-month period beginning in July 2005, Guetzloe was paid $471,250 from two accounts by the Lowndes law firm.

In Winter Garden plans for Sembler's massive open-air mall Winter Garden Village at Fowler Groves had split the community. And politically Mayor Jack Quesinberry, who was sued by Guetzloe earlier this year, was running for re-election against newly appointed City Commissioner Rod Reynolds who supported the mall and was backed by Guetzloe.

In Winter Park the city was split over Keen's 4-story Carlisle condominium and retail project. And politically, Mayor Kenneth "Kip" Marchman was running for reelection against David Strong who based his campaign on opposing The Carlisle.

In Winter Garden one James Balderrama started a group called RAID -- Residents Against Irresponsible Development to stop Sembler's Fowler Grove. Balderrama said that initially Guetzloe offered him advice on how to stop the shopping center but, he says, that all changed when ads for The Sembler Co. began airing on Guetzloe's AM radio show, and when Guetzloe supported the mayoral campaign of Rod Reynolds.

Guetzloe had worked to have Winter Garden commissioner Bill Thompson removed for allegedly violating the Sunshine Law. Jeb Bush's first choice to fill Thompson's vacancy was Richard Mask, but Mask was eliminated when it was discovered he had lied on his application about being a high school graduate. So Bush selected Rod Reynolds who favored Sembler's shopping mall. Reynolds then ran unsuccessfully for mayor and was backed by Guetzloe. Hal Kantor donated $500 to Reynold's unsuccessful campaign. Later Guetzloe claimed on his radio show that he had received a letter from a resident in a trailer park and claimed that Mask was "trolling for children." The Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office is investigating whether Guetzloe broke the law by accusing Mask of what he accused him of. The State Attorney's Office is also looking into Guetzloe's role in the campaign of a mayoral candidate Reynolds.

Now back to Winter Garden, The Carlisle and the mayor's race. David Strong, who opposed The Carlisle and who was opposed by Guetzloe, won the mayor' race, but not before anonymous fliers were distributed stating that in 1999 Strong had gotten into an altercation with a neighbor over a dog and had smeared dog poop on the man!

Recall that developer Allan Keen and two partners wanted to develop a massive four story structure out of proportion from the rest of the surrounding area. Many don't want it and feel that Keen, who is on various Winter Park advisory boards, has gotten approval for special variances to build the monstrosity. A previous project by Keen is the development of 160 acres in Winter Park now known as Windsong. Much of the paving, drainage and sewer work for Windsong was done by Amick Construction presided over by Jeffry Fuqua. Fuqua is now VP for Sembler's Georgia operations.

Doug Guetzloe was a logical PR choice for Allan Keen to turn to. After all Keen as chairman of the Orange County Expressway Authority, proposed to hire Guetzloe as a consultant to gauge opposition to future toll-road increases, though Orange County's mayor feels that Guetzloe was paid not to oppose a rate hike. For $107,500 Guetzloe submitted a 21/4-page analysis at $180 a word that advises the board on "how to win over people who hate to pay tolls." In it he even misspells Executive Director Mike Snyder's name!

Guetzloe has admitted that he distributed the dog poop fliers. And now Guetzloe faces a misdemeanor charge for not designating it as a paid political advertisement, as required by the state. Guetzloe reported that he spent about $15,000 of his own money on the mailers and on a Web site called Winter Park Taxpayers for the Truth, according to documents he filed with the city after the election. Kantor has admitted that his firm had obtained a copy of the police file on Strong's 1999 confrontation with his neighbor.

In developing stories from which this article came, Christopher Sherman of the Orlando Sentinel called Sembler CEO Craig Sher but Sher did not return a call seeking comment. Sher did let Sembler spokeswoman Amber Overby comment to another Sentinel reporter. But Ms. Overby would not say whether the company had paid Guetzloe through its attorney to get involved in the city's politics. She cited attorney-client privilege which is ridiculous because Sembler is the client and can say anything it wants to say.

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