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When going got rough, real estate entrepreneurs went shopping

How many tainted home loans does it take to buy "black Tahitian South Sea pearls?" Or to splurge on $10,000 worth of baubles at "Diamond Creations" on the island of St. Maarten?

If you're Phil Coon, the former Coast Bank mortgage executive credited with eviscerating his company last year, your take was something like $1.5-million.

Coon's Lifestyles-of-the-Rich- and-Infamous routine ended this month when he agreed to plead guilty to fraud. He skimmed fees as part of a no-money down home building scheme that ultimately helped drive his Bradenton bank out of business.

Coon was unexceptional. As you perform post-mortems on failed, and sometimes shady, Tampa area real estate operations, you notice that spending sprees often correspond with the shakiness of the business:

Raising the roof: Jesse Battle, the bankrupt St. Petersburg builder who collaborated with Coon on the failed home flipping deals, used his gains to buy a Smoky Mountain retreat. Ron Smith did Battle one better. Smith, head of Tampa's defunct Smith Family Homes, left behind about $50-million in bad debts when he dissolved the company this summer. But he still found the money to set himself up in a $1.7-million mansion in Odessa.

Losing it in Vegas: A perennial favorite. You've made a killing and now it's time to gamble away some of that lucre. Church bingo just won't cut it. It's off to the Nevada desert., a multimillion-dollar real estate seminar service in Largo that crumbled under the weight of its debts this month, combined business with pleasure by taking its show on the road to Planet Hollywood in Vegas.

A movable feast: Fancy hideaways and weekend getaways aren't enough. A wannabe real estate tycoon needs status symbols. We've already covered Coon's taste for Pacific island oysters, but how about Battle's new Hummer, bought when his home building empire was bleeding millions in losses? Then there's Martin Donovan, a Realtor at the forefront of a foreclosure epidemic in Clearwater. He liked to tool around in a blue Bentley when he wasn't sailing his yacht.

Rest assured, not all such spending was self-indulgent. Prosecutors said Coon gave "significant charitable contributions to a church." What's that Bible verse about pearls before swine?

When going got rough, real estate entrepreneurs went shopping 10/23/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 4:23pm]
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