OLDSMAR — Ola Mae "Babe'' Wright, a former Oldsmar City Council member, and Richard Ferkich are both well known in the city for establishing the sprawling Oldsmar Flea Market.
Their relationship goes back more than 30 years. With the help of Wright's real estate business, Big Bay Realty, Ferkich purchased the land at the southwest corner of Race Track and Tampa roads in 1979. Within a year, he opened the Oldsmar Flea Market. Wright was named the market's manager and held that post until last year.
The two saw the business grow to house more than 1,000 vendors ranging from mom-and-pop craft dealers to more unusual businesses like R&R Reptiles and White Tiger Tattoos and Air Brushing.
However, any goodwill between Wright, now 78, and Ferkich, 73, seems to have evaporated in a legal spat.
Richard Ferkich Inc., owned by Ferkich and his wife, Kelly, has filed a lawsuit against Wright, her Big Bay Realty Inc. and Ralph McWherter, the flea market's former maintenance manager.
Among the allegations listed in the suit is that Wright and McWherter, 77, stole lottery tickets and proceeds from the market worth nearly $140,000, collected and sold property that had been left behind by flea market tenants, and kept certain rents and fees collected from tenants for their own use.
When reached by the Tampa Bay Times, Kelly Gaudet-Ferkich said her husband was ill and could not answer questions. His attorney, David Ferrentino, wouldn't discuss what led to the lawsuit but said filing it was "the best thing for the Oldsmar Flea Market."
"The Ferkiches started the market from the ground up and care very deeply about the customers,'' he said. "They had to make some hard decisions to go forward with this litigation, but in the interest of the market, it had to be done."
However, Wright and McWherter countersued on March 21, contending that they are the victims. They claim they are due unpaid wages and that Ferkich discriminated against them because of their ages. They claim Ferkich "is using this case as an action to silence them.''
Their countersuit acknowledges that McWherter took lottery tickets and proceeds, but states that he "subsequently repaid the amounts due for these tickets.''
Wright and McWherter contend that decades ago, a deal was struck with Ferkich for Big Bay Realty to receive commissions on some of the collected rents. "The relationship between the parties and their respective principals date back more than 30 years,'' their suit states. "At all times the plaintiff and its principals specifically knew of and structured the financial arrangements.''
When Wright and McWherter were reached for comment, they referred questions to attorney Lee Hass, who declined to discuss the case.
A court date has not yet been set.
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.