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A trail of bad deals and good deeds

In 1985, a Miami accounting whiz named Bill Planes went to federal prison.

His crime: embezzling more than $140,000 from a troubled Hollywood, Fla., mortgage company he had been hired to resurrect. His future prospects: Not so good, it seemed.

The Miami Herald declared his "once sizzling career" had "officially fizzled." At 43, Planes began serving a three-year sentence.

Fast forward to a Saturday in March 2006, when a crowd gathered for the groundbreaking of a student activity center at St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian School in Tarpon Springs.

Among the honorees: the man who founded the private school and put what he later said was $6-million into it. He had achieved the rank of archon, the Greek Orthodox church's highest and rarest honor for a layman who demonstrates extraordinary service.

He was Bill Planes.

Speakers at the groundbreaking included then-U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, who noted the charitable works of Planes and his wife, Regina.

"All the good Regina and Bill have done for this community," Bilirakis told the crowd, "the man upstairs sees it all."

Planes' story might have been one of a man who makes a mistake, pays his dues and spends the rest of his life making up for it.

But then his ambition took him to a place called Trinity. The economy soured. Building contractors who did work for Planes' businesses complained about money.

Turns out they have lots of company.

• • •

Carved out of pastures in southwest Pasco County, Trinity has become a prestigious ZIP code. Eye surgeon James Gills began assembling land for the community, just across the Pinellas County line, in 1982. Expensive homes popped up on plush golf courses, and soon there were office buildings, schools, shopping centers.

But, like many booming suburbs, Trinity lacked a center.

Bill Planes, now 66, saw opportunity. He was not an established developer, later describing himself as the former head of a company, International Cooperative Consultants, that tried to turn around struggling businesses. If they were successful, his company got a fee. Or his company might try to acquire the businesses as part of a conglomerate.

In Pasco, Planes had found a prime piece of property — more than 13 acres at the crossroads of Little Road and Trinity Boulevard — and in December 2004, his Trinity Place LLC paid Sunfield Homes $5.4-million for the undeveloped land.

Not only does a Planes-related company own the property (now under the name Trinity Town Center LLLP), but he is also chief executive officer of the project's general contractor, South Capital Construction.

His plan: develop a Main Street-style shopping center — pedestrian-friendly, with tree-lined cobblestone paths, a bandshell, fountains and a signature clock tower. He called it Trinity Town Center.

Television spots heralded the coming of "the Main Street" of Trinity: a Mediterranean-style complex with upscale restaurants and boutiques and even the county's first parking garage.

"One site that stands above the rest is the Trinity Town Center," a May news release from the developer says, "with a certain grandeur that moves it light years ahead of surrounding strip malls and chain restaurants."

• • •

Not long after construction got under way, public records in Pasco County began to hint at money problems. In November 2007, Aristeo Construction filed a lien worth $485,847. Trinity Town Center sued, saying that Aristeo had missed its deadline for filing the lien, but dropped it after the two sides reached a settle­ment.

More construction liens followed. Planes' South Capital Construction paid off some, but others took their places.

As of last week, nearly 20 companies with contracts with South Capital had more than $5-million worth of outstanding liens on the project, according to Pasco County records.

Trinity Town Center officials urged subcontractors to be patient because the lender, New Jersey-based Kennedy Funding, which holds a $47-million mortgage on the project, had been slow releasing funds. A representative for Kennedy denied that.

In a July interview with a Times reporter at his office in Palm Harbor, Planes said the number of liens was typical for a big construction project. But he also blamed the lienholders. Their work was shoddy, he said. Or they were billing for work they had not yet done. Or they had gotten panicky and filed too quickly.

"Filing a claim of lien doesn't necessarily imply somebody is due something," Planes said. "It means they feel they may be due something."

To drive home that point, Trinity Town Center officials later that month tore down nearly $500,000 worth of decorative concrete, saying in a news release that it was not up to par. Italian Cast Stone, the Tampa subcontractor that made and installed the concrete, had filed liens totaling nearly $525,000.

Rosy Conto, the company president, said Planes' claims are untrue and came only after she began fighting South Capital over the unpaid bills. On Aug. 7, she had a heart attack. Her doctors blamed stress. Conto blamed the stress on the Trinity project.

"This has taken a toll on us," said Conto, who is recovering at home. "I can't deal with it anymore."

Planes' lawyers alleged "fraudulent liens" in some cases, saying the contractors missed their deadlines to file paperwork with the court. Or they cited a contract clause that says subcontractors won't get paid until South Capital gets paid. Which is to say: until one Planes company pays another Planes company.

• • •

After giving an initial interview about problems at Trinity, Planes declined to be interviewed for future stories. His lawyer, Langfred White, wrote this in an e-mail to a Times reporter: "Digging into what happened roughly a quarter-century ago isn't news."

A Coral Gables native, Planes graduated with an accounting degree from Florida State University. Before he was accused of embezzling funds from the Hollywood mortgage company, he was a successful Miami accountant, who had a horse farm, drove a Rolls-Royce and claimed to have made $120,000 one year off a single client, according to Miami Herald articles about his trial.

After prison, he answered a help-wanted ad for a South Florida fruit company, where he eventually became president, Planes has said. That company led to others, until Planes was head of the parent company of a conglomerate.

He was no stranger to court disputes in Miami-Dade County. Planes has been listed as a defendant in about 100 civil court cases there dating to 1973.

By 1999, his connections took him to Louisiana, where he got involved in managing health care facilities. Four Louisiana companies later took Planes to federal court, accusing him of mismanagement — not paying bills, not paying taxes and leaving with some of their assets, including unpaid invoices.

One of them, a psychiatric facility in Baton Rouge called Charis Hospital, eventually settled for $700,000, according to the former owners. Another, Universal Rehabilitation, a long-term acute care hospital in New Orleans, still has a federal civil case against Planes. He had worked out a settlement agreement but failed to make the payments, documents show. His Louisiana-based lawyer in that case dropped him as a client in July after saying Planes did not pay him.

The Internal Revenue Service also had problems with Planes. It placed two liens on Planes' $1.3-million residence in Tarpon Springs: a $1.1-million lien from May 2004, for unpaid payroll and income taxes, and a $2.9-million lien from November 2007 for unpaid payroll taxes.

"He doesn't think he should really have to pay," Doug Carroll, former administrator at Charis Hospital. "And he wants to see if he can get away without paying."

• • •

Contrast that view of Planes with this one: quiet philanthropist.

As a newcomer in Tarpon Springs in the late 1990s, Planes befriended the Very Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos, a beloved religious leader who died in 2005.

Father Tryfon's son, Jerry, recalled that the two met after Planes anonymously donated $2,500 to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the spiritual heart of the city's large Greek population.

The priest went to thank Planes but after their conversation decided the $2,500 was more than Planes could afford. Father Tryfon returned the check and told Planes to see him once he got back on his feet.

And he did. Over the years, Planes anonymously paid for everything from a top-of-the-line copier machine for the church to chemotherapy for an uninsured cancer patient to holiday dinners for the homeless.

"This Bill Planes has been a blessing to me," said James Warren, a Tarpon Springs man who organizes the dinners.

Together, Father Tryfon and Planes came up with the idea to start a first-rate private school that would incorporate ancient Greek philosophy and the Gospel into its teachings.

The school, set up as a nonprofit that included Planes and his wife as directors, is called St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian School. It is a separate legal entity from the church, which helps with religious education.

Nick Billiris, retired provost of St. Petersburg College who joined the school's board, said Planes paid to turn the dream into a reality.

"My sense was that he wasn't just doing something but making sure it was a quality initiative," said Billiris. "It was solely his dollars that were responsible for it moving ahead."

The school opened its Keystone Road campus in January 2006, leasing property owned by another of Planes' companies, Trinity Corner LLC.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the activity center that March, Planes said that even though his family had contributed about $3-million of the $3.5-million spent so far on the construction, his focus was on the "humanistic side of things rather than business."

• • •

There was no mention that day of the billing disputes over the school's construction.

The company that lost the most on the project? General contractor Lincoln Construction, a 50-year-old family-owned business.

After a bitter dispute over some issues with the company's work, Planes refused to finish paying Lincoln, which filed a $690,000 lien on the project.

Planes said Lincoln's work had mistakes that had to be corrected and that Lincoln, without the school's knowledge, made some unacceptable material substitutions. Company president Gary Lincoln said he cut costs to the school for a handful of mistakes and that Planes knew all along about the material substitutions.

At any rate, Lincoln spent $100,000 in legal fees trying to chase down the rest of the money before giving up, he said. The school project helped spell the end of Lincoln Construction.

"There wasn't any way to beat him," said Lincoln, who now works for another construction company. "He said I was naive. And he's right."

Some of Lincoln's subcontractors went to court. Some settled. Others, like Bruce Bohan, vice-president of Pinellas Drywall, are still fighting.

In an October 2006 letter to Bohan, Planes wrote that he was not obligated to pay Pinellas Drywall since its contract was with Lincoln. But he wondered whether Bohan might take $8,687 rather than the $11,582 he was owed. Bohan asked for a formal offer, which never came.

"He beats people down," said Bohan. "He keeps you in the game long enough to get everything done."

• • •

Still, with the opening of the school, Planes' reputation soared in other circles. That January, he was put in charge of the Epiphany celebration. It was the 100th anniversary of the annual event and featured a first-ever visit by the ecumenical patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew, the most revered figure in the Greek Orthodox church.

Father Michael Eaccarino, a priest at St. Nicholas, said Planes, who grew up in the Greek Orthodox church, put more than $1-million of his own money into making the Epiphany event a success.

The patriarch's visit would not have happened without Planes' help, he said. He did it "because of how much he loves his church," Eaccarino said. "Let's face it: Bill Planes is a mover and a shaker. He makes things happen."

But some Epiphany vendors complained their bills were overdue or only partially paid. One of those vendors was Julie's Limousines, which provided transportation services during the event, and said it was still owed $37,550.

The limousine company complained. And complained. And in December 2006, Planes responded — with a defamation lawsuit.

The suit said the company and its representatives, Rocky Shirey and Julie Herring, had defamed him by saying that Planes had "stained the entire Greek community" and by trying to establish that Planes was personally liable for the debt.

In their response, the defendants said Planes had "repeatedly made representations" that the limo company would get paid. At one point, the response said, Planes said he was trying to sell or refinance property to get their money. At another point, he said he had to sell some memorabilia. And he told them he would not pay them at all because they "kept contacting others about payment to Julie's Limousine."

The case ended in a confidential settlement.

Jerry Theophilopoulos, also a lawyer who helped Planes on the case, acknowledged in an interview that there were some "issues" around payment to vendors. But he added: "Again, Mr. Planes eventually stepped in and took care of everything."

• • •

Today, construction crews remain busy at Trinity Town Center, though it seems unlikely any of the promised upscale restaurants will be ready this month, the advertised deadline. One tenant, a cafe, has filed suit to get out of its lease.

Planes' 80-foot yacht, the Lady Regina, is listed for sale at nearly $5.25-million. Kennedy Funding, the lender on the Trinity project, in July got a $3.7-million mortgage on the St. Nicholas school property.

More personally for Planes, there is his status as an archon, the greatest honor for a layman in the Greek Orthodox Church. Well-known archons include Mike Bilirakis and U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.

One of the many requirements: No criminal conviction.

Father Alex Karloutsos, who is with the New York-based Order of St. Andrew, which oversees the archons, told the St. Petersburg Times that Planes was nominated in 2004 by Father Tryfon. No one mentioned the conviction and at that time, the church did not do full background checks on its nominees.

A few months ago, church leaders in New York heard about Planes' past.

"There are rules and procedures," Karloutsos said, "upon which the institution runs."

Planes, he said, will lose the honor.

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

A trail of bad deals and good deeds 10/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 1:36pm]

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