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Legal troubles, probes swirl around businessman Ralph Hughes' company

TAMPA — The housing boom was at its height, and the future never looked rosier at Cast-Crete.

The Seffner company, transformed to specialize in precast concrete building materials, saw its income skyrocket, rolling up profits of $1 million a week in 2006 alone.

At the helm were chairman Ralph Hughes and president John D. Stanton, who took $115 million in income and used the money for political largesse and business acquisitions.

Stanton amassed exotic cars, pricey homes and new companies. Hughes kept on as a political kingmaker and small-government evangelist, bonding with Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman and other like-minded politicians.

Now, less than four years later, the building boom is over and Cast-Crete is treading water in a sea of troubles. After Hughes died in 2008, the IRS said he and the company owed hundreds of millions in income taxes. His heirs and Stanton are now locked in a bitter battle for control of the company. Three federal investigations are targeting current and former Cast-Crete executives and inquiring into a $500,000 gift from Hughes to Norman's wife.

And last week, a judge tossed Stanton in jail for contempt of court arising from his divorce case, saying he missed a deadline to produce certain documents. His attorney appealed the contempt ruling Friday.

Meanwhile, the Hughes family and Stanton are fighting about Cast-Crete. It boiled over last year, when the Hughes family hired a private security firm for an armed takeover of the firm.

Stanton, 62, is a disabled Vietnam veteran who trained as a certified public accountant before joining Hughes at Cast-Crete. As the company's profits grew, Stanton diversified in dozens of companies, including home health care, renewable energy and military explosives.

As Stanton's net worth grew to $269 million, he picked up fancy homes in Indian Shores and the Avila neighborhood near Tampa, according to divorce records. His fleet of cars included a 1953 Porsche, 1971 Lamborghini and a 1983 DeLorean. He and his wife and son took vacations on chartered flights and threw $25,000 catered Halloween parties. Stanton also gave generously, donating a $1.7 million property to the Independent Day School in Tampa and $250,000 for Armwood High School's field house.

On Nov. 4, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Caroline J. Tesche ordered Stanton arrested, finding his failure to disclose his assets "particularly egregious." She sentenced him to six months in jail or until he meets court-ordered disclosure requirements in the divorce case.

The case has bumped along since 2007, when Susan Stanton said her nine-year marriage was broken "by reason of [Stanton's] dishonesty." Susan Stanton, 51, said in court papers that her husband is the target of an IRS criminal investigation and that she feared he was hiding assets.

Cast-Crete made more than $100 million in profits during the building boom, and at least $55 million was channeled to John Stanton's companies from 2003 to 2007, according to an accounting analysis in the divorce case. Most of the money went to two companies, Escape Velocity and Denouement Strategies.

Stanton said in divorce filings that his fortune has fallen along with the economy — particularly at Cast-Crete.

The company's financial status is "dire,'' according to an August filing by his attorney, John E. "Sean" Johnson. Because of the dramatic downturn in housing, Cast-Crete was unable to stay current with its vendors or make payments on a $200 million note to John Stanton and a similar note to Hughes.

Stanton's attorney also noted that accountants had testified that his other business ventures "had no value, no current income and no prospects."

Some companies were in bankruptcy, while others appeared promising but were years from profitability. Even Bulova Technologies Group, the Clearwater munitions and weapons maker in which Stanton has a 51 percent stake, had seen its stock price fall in recent months.

There is "no undisclosed pot of gold," Stanton's attorney concluded.

As for his failure to disclose holdings, Stanton partially blamed his wife and her sister, saying they took Cast-Crete records in the armed coup at the company.

Cast-Crete and its predecessor, Florida Engineered Construction Products, specialize in precast concrete materials such as lintels and sills. It had net income of more than $127 million from 2003 to 2007, but the company filed no tax returns for those years, the IRS maintains. The agency twice launched criminal investigations into the Cast-Crete's tax matters, IRS records show. Stanton repeatedly promised the IRS the five years of tax returns but never followed through, an IRS agent wrote.

In June 2009, the IRS told Cast-Crete that it owed $299 million in back taxes, penalties and interest. It also told Hughes' family that he owed more than $69 million in personal income taxes. Hughes, of Tampa, died of a heart attack in June 2008 at age 77.

When Cast-Crete flourished, the contributions from Stanton and Hughes flowed to candidates and political parties. Stanton and his companies have contributed $127,150 to political races and parties since the late 1990s — nearly as much as the $175,230 given by Hughes and his firms, state and county records show.

In an examination of Cast-Crete books, the IRS found that the company had distributed $60 million to Hughes during the period when no company tax returns were filed, another $55 million to Stanton and companies he controlled, and $5.5 million to two other company executives.

An IRS agent wrote in a memo that the company had filed false information with the IRS and "intentionally obstructed" the tax exam. The agency also blamed Stanton for "siphoning taxpayers' income from operations to himself and the other shareholders while not filing income tax returns or paying taxes" for Cast-Crete. The Hughes family and Cast-Crete are challenging the tax assessments.

Asked in a deposition in the divorce case if he was under investigation by the IRS, Stanton said, "I think a lot of matters related to Cast-Crete are being investigated, including me."

One investigation led to federal mail fraud and tax evasion charges this year against Franklin Derochemont, Cast-Crete's controller. Derochemont sent phony Cast-Crete invoices for accounting and tax services to an outside accountant in return for kickbacks, court records show. Then, the government says, Derochemont evaded more than $700,000 of taxes on his take in the kickback scheme.

Derochemont, who pleaded guilty in July and is cooperating with an ongoing investigation, is scheduled to be sentenced in January.

In another investigation, the FBI is looking into the circumstances surrounding a $500,000 check written in 2006 by Hughes to Mearline Norman, wife of outgoing Hillsborough commissioner and state Sen.-elect Jim Norman.

Norman was briefly thrown off the state Senate ballot after a Tallahassee judge ruled that the $500,000 check was a gift that Jim Norman failed to disclose. Norman won an appeal and last week's election.

Stanton told the Times in October that Hughes' son Shea called him a couple of months after Ralph Hughes' death and asked about the $500,000 check used by Norman's wife to buy an Arkansas home. The family had found paperwork concerning the money, Stanton said.

"The impression I had is that they wanted the money back," he said.

Now, Stanton and Shea Hughes are at odds in a lawsuit over ownership of Cast-Crete stock.

Believing they owned controlling stock, the Hughes family and Susan Stanton joined forces. In July 2009, they hired a private security firm with armed guards to take over the company, securing records, changing locks and voiding computer passwords.

Stanton and the company won an injunction to stop the takeover. The two sides finally found an uneasy truce, agreeing to let the company's ownership be decided in a civil trial next year.

Shea Hughes, a businessman who is Ralph Hughes' oldest son, said in a deposition that company records had so many holes it was "like a big piece of Swiss cheese." He asked Stanton why no taxes had been paid on the Cast-Crete profits but "never got a straight answer."

He said in the same deposition that his father had advised him early in life to avoid battles with the IRS.

"Pay them every dime you owe them and be glad you got it," Shea Hughes recalled his father saying. "The more taxes you pay, the better news it is for you, because the more money you made. Never, ever, ever mess with the IRS."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3422.

Correction: Businessman John Stanton was found in contempt of court and jailed in Hillsborough County in November for failing to produce certain documents during discovery in his divorce case. A story Nov. 13 gave an incorrect reason for the contempt finding. The contempt ruling was later overturned on appeal.

Legal troubles, probes swirl around businessman Ralph Hughes' company 11/13/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 6:02pm]

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