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Trump Tower builders dug deep for financing

Desperate to salvage the $300-million Trump Tower Tampa with last-ditch financing, SimDag, the Tampa developer of the proposed deluxe skyscraper, sought a nine-figure loan from Providence Funding Inc.

Based in South Bend, Ind., Providence bills itself as a faith-based lender. Its chairman identifies himself as "the Very Reverend Father Barney."

With creditors baying for satisfaction last spring, SimDag principals Frank Dagostino and Jody Simon took the plunge. They paid Providence $150,000 as a "loan commitment fee" to secure $200-million in financing for the 52-story condo tower.

But Father Barney, the reassuring figure in the black clerical garb and white collar, is actually an ex-convict named Barney Canada. He spent three years in federal prison in the early 1990s for stealing millions of dollars procuring phony loans for businesses just like SimDag.

SimDag refers to Providence Funding in a recent bankruptcy filing. It mentions pursuing "breach of contract and possible civil theft claims" against Father Barney's organization.

The Providence Funding revelation comes as SimDag's creditors gather today in a Tampa courtroom to press for repayment of nearly $40-million. It highlights the dubious sources and extreme lengths to which SimDag, rebuffed by conventional lenders, went in search of a substantial loan for a project largely given up for dead.

Donald Trump, the famed New York developer who licensed his name to the tower in exchange for half the profits, sued SimDag for breach of contract more than a year ago, taking the wind out of the project.

"If this information about SimDag is true, this is a very sad turn of events," Trump spokeswoman Rhona Graff said on Thursday.

SimDag didn't respond to questions from the St. Petersburg Times, but it wasn't the first time the company failed to vet potential financiers.

In late 2006, turned down by commercial banks in the looming housing slump, the developer sought a loan from an Orlando venture capital fund called Mirabilis Ventures.

That, too, was an oddball partnership: Among other business dealings, Mirabilis founder Frank Amodeo appeared to be running mercenaries in Africa. That deal had a shelf life of only a couple of months before stories of Mirabilis' insolvency seeped out.

This year, the federal government accused Amodeo of embezzling millions from his company. During a recent court hearing, a psychiatrist testified that Amodeo was nearly psychotic and suffered from delusions of ruling the Earth.

Father Barney's Indiana attorney, Thomas "Chip" Lewis, vouched for Providence. Lewis said the company raises cash from a confidential list of private investors, but he couldn't cite a single multimillion-dollar development Providence has funded.

Lewis has represented Father Barney for six or seven years and suggested the clergyman turned over a new leaf after defrauding borrowers 20 years ago.

In 1991, Canada pleaded guilty in Massachusetts to numerous federal counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud. The government said he ran an "advance fee scheme" in which commercial borrowers were falsely promised loans through shell corporations. Though financing never materialized, Canada kept the fees.

"This is a massive fraud perpetrated on a large number of individuals over a long period of time," a court document from the early 1990s read. "This is one of the largest, if not the largest, advance fee scheme which the Office of the United States Attorney has been involved in the last several years."

He served three years in prison and agreed to pay $1.8-million in restitution to his victims. Sometime after his release he was ordained a priest in the Orthodox-Catholic Church, a 19th century breakaway sect of the Roman Catholic Church that denies papal infallibility and allows married clergy.

Lewis said Providence lived up to its obligations with SimDag and spent at least part of the $150,000 on attorney fees, appraisals and underwriting.

"I wouldn't represent him if he was a crook," Lewis said of Canada.

Turning the tables, Lewis accused SimDag of bad faith. He said the Tampa developers withheld information about liens on the Trump Tower lot during the loan application.

Said Lewis: "These guys weren't exactly saints on the other end of the deal."

James Thorner can be reached at thorner@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3313.

Correction

Jody Simon is a former principal of SimDag, the developer of Trump Tower Tampa. A story July 18 indicated he was with the company.

Trump Tower builders dug deep for financing 07/17/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 4:43pm]
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