On a Tuesday morning five years ago, Summerwind, a three-story, 145-foot luxury yacht, maneuvered above the celebrated barrier reef that lines the coast of Belize.
There it dropped anchor — and plunged into controversy over severe damage to a coral reef system officially recognized by the United Nations as one of the world's most magnificent and irreplaceable treasures.
"The guys from the area told me they were beside the boat before it dropped anchor, and they were yelling and waving their hands, shouting, 'No! No, don't drop here,' '' recounted Melanie McField, a marine scientist with the Smithsonian Institution who surveyed the Central American reef shortly after the incident. "It was bad. There was a lot of damage."
The owner of that yacht? Billionaire Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Greene.
The real estate mogul from Palm Beach was not aboard the boat at the time. And, oddly, Greene today says the incident never happened, despite extensive publicity about it at the time (including statements from his representatives), eyewitness accounts, scientific surveys of the damage and an extensive case file at the country's Department of Environment.
"Jeff Greene doesn't take a penny of special interest money, so career politicians are attacking him with ridiculous stories about something that didn't even happen five years ago on a boat he wasn't even on,'' said campaign spokesman Luis Vizcaino.
Asked how he could say it never happened when Greene's own employees at the time acknowledged a problem on the reef with Summerwind, Vizcaino declined further comment: "That's our position. That's our quote."
Greene bought Summerwind in 2003, registering it in the Marshall Islands, a well-known tax haven. The yacht has traveled across the world, hosting Greene, family members and celebrities including Lindsay Lohan. He took it to Nantucket, Mass., last weekend to crash a meeting of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee where only his Democratic rival, Kendrick Meek, had been invited to speak.
Summerwind — like a 14-story building turned on its side — accommodates about 10 guests in five suites. Greene boasted to Forbes in 2008 that he practically stole it for $6 million in 2002. It may have been a bargain purchase, but it costs about $100,000 to fill up the tank on Summerwind, which burns about 50 gallons of fuel an hour.
Like a second home, such luxury yachts often are docked well away from their owners when not in use, which appears to be what happened in this case.
In Belize, the chief environmental officer of the Department of Environment, Martin Alegria, thumbed through a two-volume file on the Summerwind case in response to questions from the St. Petersburg Times. The case remains officially open, Alegria said in a phone interview, and if Greene or the Summerwind's then-captain returns to Belize they face fines of up to $1.87 million, given the amount of reef damage caused.
Belize became much tougher on those who harm or pollute the 175-mile reef after the Summerwind incident occurred in March 2005, Alegria said, but at the time local authorities failed to seize passports or press charges before Summerwind left.
Billy Leslie, president of the San Pedro Tourist Guide Council in Belize, said he saw the damage soon after the incident and closely followed the investigation. Summerwind's anchor caused a 50-by-200-foot swath of destruction on the living reef, he said.
"It was a very big deal at the time, but the police made mistakes in that they didn't apprehend anyone soon enough,'' he said. "They (Summerwind representatives) were very clear they were willing to pay to get this resolved, but by the time the order finally came to apprehend someone, they had taken off and never paid a penny."
News accounts at the time said the yacht's captain was interrogated but after several days passed without further action, Summerwind took off.
"My recollection is that the vessel was manned with the permanent crew at the time of the reported incident and that there were no guests onboard. The captain at the time had indicated to me that he had cooperated fully with the local authorities, including making a formal statement at a local police station,'' said Rupert Connor, who at the time worked as Greene's yacht manager. The boat left Belize as scheduled, he said, "and my office received no notification from the Belize authorities of any claim against the vessel or its environmental insurance policy."
Alegria, Belize's chief environmental enforcement officer, said he may take a closer look at the case now that it has been brought to his attention, but in 2005 the matter effectively ended when Greene's yacht left.
"It's still an open case, but it was a lost cause after they left Belize,'' said Alegria.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]