For Patrick Murphy, a Haitian hotel project was a bust but helped with connections
Patrick Murphy’s resume got fresh attention in Monday night’s debate, with Marco Rubio challenging his CPA history, work on the BP oil spill and college degrees.
Overlooked in the public vetting of Murphy is a chapter that came just before his entrance into politics – one that helps illustrate the 33-year-old’s rapid climb from obscurity to where he stands today, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate.
Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Murphy joined his father in a hotel venture that was an opportunity for the family construction business amid Florida’s economic downturn.
The $48 million Hotel des Artistes was to be built near the airport in Port-au-Prince on land owned by the WIN Group and the powerful Mevs family.
It failed to get financing but people involved in the project, including Clinton Foundation board member Rolando Gonzalez-Bunster, have contributed to Murphy’s political campaigns.
The money and connections underscore Murphy’s appeal to Democrats as he emerged from nowhere five years ago to become a national fundraising leader who defeated tea party hero Allen West and is now trying to dislodge Rubio.
Patrick Murphy got involved in late October 2010, according to his campaign, which came after he helped form Coastal Environmental Services and tried to make a go of an oil skimmer business.
In 2011, as Murphy embarked on a run for Congress, he discussed the Haiti project in interviews and the reports attributed the work to Coastal Environmental, which Murphy has used to assert he was a “small business owner,” not his father’s powerhouse Coastal Construction.
A Broward Palm Beach New Times profile stated, “A former day laborer, Murphy's now become a project engineer, as he and his company are set to break ground on a modular hotel near Port-au-Prince to aid in the area's rebuilding efforts.”
A “notable alumni” piece for Palmer Trinity School, the prep school in Miami Murphy attended read: “On the international level, Murphy has ensured Coastal Environmental’s role in helping with the rebuilding effort in Haiti, following the tragic 2010 earthquake,” the posting stated.
Murphy is quoted saying, "Rebuilding Haiti's infrastructure gives the country the opportunity to move forward while also giving Haitians jobs in the construction process.”
Murphy’s campaign said there was no attempt by the candidate to claim his business was doing the work. A Palmer Trinity School spokeswoman told the Times this week that there was a “mistake” in the article, which was written by the school’s former development director.
“What is clear is that in both of these cases, Patrick’s quote is about the construction industry, which is obviously what Coastal Construction does. It’s probably easy to confuse Coastal Construction with Coastal Environmental, since they have similar names, and especially since this wasn’t the focus of either article,” read a campaign response.
Murphy’s father had formed in Florida the Haitian Economic Development Foundation along with Youri Mevs and Jean-Marie Vorbe, another major player in Haiti.
Patrick Murphy was not involved in that, according to the campaign, but worked as a project engineer on the hotel and “coordinated with different vendors, managed the project schedule and worked to keep things on track.”
“Some of his responsibilities included working with the architect on various designs and working with consultants on the geological examination of the site for the hotel,” the campaign said.
There may be good reason why Murphy didn’t bring up the project in subsequent interviews: The Hotel Des Artistes was not built because financing fell through.
Despite being connected to powerful partners in Haiti, including the Mevs family, and enjoying support from former President Bill Clinton, investors were scared off by instability in Haiti, according to a person involved in the project, Edmund Miller, a Miami-based investment banker.
Clinton was heavily involved in Haiti following the earthquake and championed development projects. Murphy’s father also helped support Clinton, giving between $25,001 and $50,000 to the Clinton Foundation, records show. It is unclear when that donation occurred.
The Mevs family is also major contributors to the foundation, as is board member Rolando Gonzalez-Bunster, who has given at least $1 million through a personal contribution and his company InterEnergy.
With the hotel failed, Murphy turned to politics and the business connections became an invaluable asset, making Murphy a fundraising powerhouse despite being virtually unknown in south Florida politics.
Gonzalez-Bunster and his wife, Monica, have contributed more than $23,000 to Murphy’s campaigns. Miller has given him more than $11,000.
And Murphy’s father has been a major backer, not just to his son's campaigns but super PACs – at least $2.8 million this cycle alone.
Those and other connections put Murphy on the Democratic map and gave him an advantage in the Senate race, in which he called for more disclosure of primary opponent Alan Grayson’s business dealings.
But his relative inexperience and lack of a track record has been a recurring issue, starting with the BP oil spill in which Murphy projected environmental cred by saying he worked “six months” in the gulf. His actual cleanup work is a matter of dispute.
His work as a CPA has also been dinged and he did not obtain dual degrees from the University of Miami, as the Times/Herald has reported.
Republicans have made these discrepancies an issue and Rubio seized on them during Monday’s debate.
"It's not that hard to open a small business when your dad opens it for you," Rubio said.
"I never tried to hide that … you're making things up," Murphy said.
"No, I'm not the one who makes things up," Rubio countered.