Monday, January 22, 2018
News Roundup

Man behind public safety campus plan trailed by civil fraud, theft allegations

LAND O'LAKES — Skip Drish, the man who proposed putting a security academy's public safety campus in central Pasco County, faces a barrage of civil litigation.

The accusations range from fraud and exploitation of the elderly to theft and cheating employees out of earned wages.

"Nothing surprises me with this guy," said Shawn Roark, president of the Pasco Trails Association, which has its own legal fight against Drish and one of his companies, Serve & Educate, over allegations that Drish illegally operated a commercial gun range on agriculture land.

"He's a supreme con man," said John Bell, a Chicago lawyer, who in 2010 successfully defended Commonwealth Edison against a $2.6 million whistle-blower lawsuit from Drish in the Circuit Court of Cook County in Illinois.

"I find it hard to believe an attorney would say that," Drish responded.

Not everyone shared the lawyer's opinion.

Drish, for the past two years, has let Grace Family Church hold its annual "man camps" at Serve & Educate's land on the north side of State Road 52, and he also plays host at the site to inner-city children for mentoring and outdoor activities through Grace Family's outreach in Ybor City.

"It's been a great thing," said Craig Altman, Grace Family lead pastor. "Some of these kids have never been out in the country before."

The only guns discharged at the man camp, Altman said, fire paintball pellets.

• • •

Drish, 53, is a part-time contract employee at the church, where he is head of security. His resume also includes jobs in law enforcement, private security and construction. In 2005, he and his family purchased a new $633,000 lakefront home in the Ivy Lakes Estates development in Odessa.

Drish had been a part-time police officer in Stone Park, Ill., a village of 5,000 people 16 miles northwest of Chicago, for less than three years prior to moving to Florida a decade ago. He also had been an officer in the village of Chicago Ridge in the early 1990s, and his application in Stone Park said he had been a Chicago Police Department officer in 2000 and 2001. His businesses include his private security firm, Investigations & Security Bureau Inc., which lists its address in Hillsborough County, and his construction company, Worldwide Contracting Inc.

Drish became widely known in the Land O'Lakes community in 2012 when he applied for what the county government calls a conditional-use permit to operate a firing range on 13 acres. The property, a half-mile east of the SR 52/U.S. 41 intersection, sits between two affluent neighborhoods, Pilot Country Estates, home to airplane enthusiasts, and Pasco Trails, an equestrian community where homes sit on 5- and 10-acre lots.

Amid objections from neighbors, Drish withdrew that application in January 2013 but then filed for different permission to open a public safety campus on a larger piece of property to serve as a one-stop training center for law enforcement officers and firefighters. Proposed facilities included a multistory fire tower, an automobile driving course, a firing range, a search-and-rescue course, classrooms and support buildings, plus separate recreational and athletic facilities.

The Pasco Development Review Committee heard the application request 11 months ago but did not act. Afterward, the county asked a court to determine if Drish operated a commercial gun range illegally — as neighbors contended during the public hearing — and if the county codes were enforceable or pre-empted by state law. Drish's counterclaim said the land is no longer used for firearms-related commerce and that the county code violates the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Drish told the Times this week that he intended to amend his plans for the property to remove the school campus and would seek permission for commercial, recreational and residential uses. It will not include a firing range, he said.

Drish's statement came four days after Pasco County Judge William Sestak granted the county's request for an injunction, barring Drish from gun-related business activities on the property, until the larger issue of whether the county has the authority to regulate the firing range is settled.

• • •

That is not the only litigation targeting Drish.

But Drish said he could not discuss any of the matters.

"Unfortunately, because they are in court action right now, I'm not at liberty to comment," he said.

Attorney Brian Bolves, who is representing Drish in the land-use court case, also said he could not comment because he had not been retained by Drish on the other lawsuits.

Among them:

• In September, Family Dollar Services sued Drish and his businesses, saying he won't return money to which he is not entitled. The dollar-store chain mistakenly overpaid him in 2014 by more than $500,000 for construction work done by Worldwide Contracting. The money had been intended for a different contractor.

Family Dollar discovered the error less than a month later and asked for reimbursement. Worldwide Contracting sent a check for a little more than $75,000 but refused to pay the remaining $429,221, the suit said.

Family Dollar contends Drish and Serve & Educate used the money to start making the improvements at the 136 acres earmarked for the public safety campus in Land O'Lakes. Family Dollar is seeking the disputed $429,000, plus treble damages of nearly $1.3 million, as state law allows in cases of civil theft.

"No comment," Drish said.

• W.R. Watson and Eileen Watson, the previous owners of the ranch land acquired by Serve & Educate in 2012 and 2013, sued Drish and his company in October, saying Drish conned Watson, 93, and his wife, who turns 82 next month, out of land valued at more than $1.5 million.

Drish "befriended plaintiffs and showered them with almost daily visits to their home, small and large gifts and a never-ending stream of conversations, all designed to gain their confidence in him and his business," the suits states. He told the couple he "would take care of them," and if one of them died, he would "take care of the survivor."

According to the lawsuit, the Watsons, who were not represented by legal counsel during their real estate transactions with Drish, sold him 80 acres in 2012 for $750,000. However, Flagship Community Bank, which already held a $500,000 note on another part of the property from a 2008 agreement, objected and filed foreclosure proceedings in 2013.

Drish told the couple he would lose his investment on the land and the Watsons would lose the rest of their property unless they could find the financing to satisfy Flagship. He later said he had located a so-called "money man" who wouldn't advance payment unless the Watsons signed specific documents.

On Dec. 30, 2013, Drish drove the couple to a title company in Wesley Chapel, where they signed papers as directed by Drish or the title company agent. By the end of the day, the Watsons had signed away most of the rest of their land to Drish — who now owned 136 acres — and had canceled his prior $750,000 debt to them.

"No comment," Drish said.

• The "money man" turned out to be John P. and Betty L. Rosier, whose joint trust paid off the debt to Flagship. The Rosiers filed a foreclosure suit against Drish and his companies in July 2015 saying Drish hadn't made the required installment payments on the $550,000 debt, failed to pay the property taxes and didn't carry the required insurance on the land.

"No comment," Drish said.

• In September, three people sued Drish and Investigations and Security Bureau Inc. in a federal class-action lawsuit alleging Drish and the company failed to pay them for all of the hours they worked as security guards under the company's contract with the Orange County School Board. They said they routinely worked between 50 and 60 hours weekly but were not paid overtime. Drish also is accused of not paying some employees the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Drish said the case had settled. The plaintiff's attorney, Marc Edelman of Morgan & Morgan, said Drish had not responded to the lawsuit.

• • •

None of these allegations are a surprise to Bell, one of the attorneys who faced Drish in court in Chicago over his whistle-blower claim against Commonwealth Edison.

"He's no stranger to litigation," Bell said. "He thinks he can outwit any allegation. He'll just make up another lie."

DRI, a national organization for defense, insurance and corporate lawyers, published an account of the Illinois case on its website. It indicated Drish was employed by a unit of Commonwealth Edison, providing backup generators and related services to commercial customers. He was laid off at the end of 2002.

His unit's business involved using outside contractors to install the generators, and allegations arose against Drish that he pushed employees to use a vendor tied to a company owned by Drish's brother. Drish, in turn, alleged that a company engineer accepted bribes to send the business elsewhere. The company investigated Drish's claim but said it was unfounded. Drish sued, claiming his layoff was retaliation for his good faith report of bribery. The company said Drish was its lowest-performing manager.

"I brought the whistle-blower claim," Drish said this week. "I did what I believe was right."

In preparing the company's defense, however, lawyers learned Drish "had misrepresented his employment background when he applied to Commonwealth Edison. He claimed to have been a vice president of a large electrical contracting firm when, in fact, he had operated 16 companies between 1984 and 2000 that had either failed or been dissolved into bankruptcy," the DRI report said. "Had Commonwealth Edison known the material misrepresentations, it never would have hired him."

A jury took four hours to issue a verdict in favor of the company.

After Commonwealth, Drish worked part time in the Stone Park police department, then came to Florida where the website for his security company lists him as detective and chief instructor. It says the training academy's values are: "Education. Ethics. Quality. High standards."

News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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