After burst of national attention, Steve Gordon still has past legal woes he hopes to set right
After winning some national attention in a January town hall exchange in Tampa about tight business credit with President Obama, Clearwater small business man Steve Gordon extended his streak in the public spotlight last Friday by testifying before the House Financial Services committee.
Gordon's road to that congressional testimony was paved by coverage in the New York Times (here and again here), AP, Reuters, Creative Loafing, Tampa Tribune and by my own coverage in a St. Petersburg Times column and on this Venture blog. But some of Gordon's earlier past, in a previous career as a home builder, still angers some Tampa Bay area folks who feel they were burned and conned by Gordon. Legal actions from those days are still pending against Gordon.
For those just tuning in, Gordon since 1991 has run a small business called Instant-Off that makes a simple device that attaches to faucets to minimize water waste. Picked from a crowd of thousands by Obama to ask a question at a University of Tampa town hall meeting, Gordon said small businesses simply cannot get credit even when they want to expand. That earned Gordon some local Tampa Bay coverage, and then a Q&A in the New York Times and, in turn, an invitation to testify on Capitol Hill last week.
But some readers emailed me upset that Gordon's home building past was not brought out in the recent stories and especially in my column. The New York Times and Tampa Tribune stories had briefly mentioned his bankruptcy associated with his home building days but did not detail the extent of litigation. One of the issues then, cited in this 2006 St. Petersburg Times story, involved builder "Steven Ross Gordon" telling home buyers of his Townhomes of Cypress Walk at Trinity in southwest Pasco County that they must pay more for their residences because he was upgrading the homes. Gordon, according to the story, says he had the right in the contract to adjust prices, but the contracts signed by the buyers did not contain that clause. His company, Cypress Walk Developers, declared bankruptcy in 2008.
Past coverage also noted that during the 1980s in Pinellas County, Gordon's businesses faced multiple foreclosures and lost at least two dozen breach-of-contract lawsuits. Dozens more were settled or dismissed.
Should this background have been detailed in my coverage? Yes. That's why I am discussing it here. I also asked Gordon last week about this history of litigation -- there are still dozens of various legal actions in Pinellas County records -- and if there might be any resolution with so many upset customers from the past.
Gordon responded to me by e-mail. His biggest point? He says he hopes to make a big enough success of his Instant-Off business to be able to settle all of his pending legal problems. Will that happen? I do not know. But Gordon, in his e-mail, offers his own take on the matter. Here are the e-mail's highlights:
"I was in the middle of developing a 35 million dollar townhome project at the time of the real estate crash. Property values in Trinity fell almost 50% in a matter of six months. I worked extremely hard to pay off as many vendors as I could. With property value only worth half as much as it was the year before there was not enough money to pay everyone.
"Cypress Walk Developers, Inc. was one of several thousand builders nationwide that went out of business because of the real estate crash in 2007. If it wasn't for the crash I would have completed the project, everyone would have been paid in full and I would have made several million dollars...
"As a builder you must sign on everything personally. So when things go south you get sued personally. It comes with the territory if you're going to be a builder. Whenever people lose money they become bitter and say nasty things.
"I have chosen not to file bankruptcy because I hope to make enough money at INSTANT-OFF to go back and reach a settlement with anyone who is owed money.
"My experience at Cypress Walk Developers, Inc. has nothing to do with the 19 years I have spent promoting water conservation issues. It's been four years since the real estate crash and I am long over my anger about losing all my money at Cypress Walk.
"I am excited about the future and confident that INSTANT-OFF will be a huge success.
When that happens, I look forward to contacting people who lost money due to the real estate crash and reaching settlement with each one of them."
This blog postings seems unlikely to satisfy Gordon's detractors or his supporters. But let's at least air some of the laundry and see if there some good can come of it in the days ahead.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist