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Jeff Greene's path to Senate campaign shows he is uncompromising, sometimes to a fault

PALM BEACH — Send Jeff Greene to the U.S. Senate, and what do you get?

Maybe you've elected a self-made success story who doesn't owe anyone anything, a tough man who couldn't care less about special interest campaign checks or endorsements, and only wants to do what's right.

"You're very lucky to have him in Florida. It's not very often guys like him, who aren't compromised at all and don't owe anything to anybody, put themselves out to run for political office,'' said longtime friend Jeff Wilson, founder of Wilson's Leather chain.

Or maybe your new senator is a tyrant and egomaniac who spends six years embarrassing Florida.

Either alternative looks plausible in the case of Greene, a political blank slate with a track record of remarkable success — and sheer tackiness.

On the one hand, Greene's billionaire wealth is completely of his own doing, from mining side jobs to put himself through college to spot-on betting against the subprime mortgage market.

But behind the bio soundbites and chipper TV ads lies a man widely disparaged by current and former employees, former tenants and political consultants as a self-absorbed cheapskate. A lawsuit accuses him of being cruel and verbally abusive to his former chef. A deckhand shocked on Greene's Summerwind yacht had to fight eight months to get his medical bills paid after Greene denied knowing him.

Now the 55-year-old businessman who came out of nowhere is poised to earn the Democratic nomination. He faces Kendrick Meek in the Aug. 24 primary and if he wins will take on Republican Marco Rubio and independent Charlie Crist — a three-way race where 35 percent of the vote could be enough to be elected senator.

"If he plans on running his country like his yacht, we're all going to be sinking," said John Walenczyk, a Summerwind deckhand.

• • •

The buzz among Greene employees is that if the Asian or European markets have done poorly overnight, it's going to be a rough morning because Greene, a screamer, is up all hours monitoring his vast portfolio.

James Battles, Greene's former personal chef, sued him last year. The suit alleges Greene demanded round-the-clock attention and would berate and humiliate Battles when he sought reimbursement for food paid for out of his own pocket.

Battles said Greene fired him after he was hospitalized for exhaustion before one of Greene's parties. The settlement is confidential and Greene declined to discuss the case.

Former and current employees tell similar stories, though most fear talking publicly.

Adam Lambert worked as captain of Greene's 145-foot yacht, Summerwind, earlier this year.

"He has total disregard for anybody else,'' chuckled Lambert, who said he was Greene's 20th and 22nd Summerwind captain (No. 21 quit after a few hours with Greene).

"I don't think I ever once had an actual conversation with him. It was always, 'I should just get rid of you, what f------ good are you? You're just a f------ boat driver. You're the third-highest paid employee in my corporation and I should just get rid of you,' '' Lambert, 43, recalled by phone from a yacht in Croatia. "It didn't bother me. I just felt sorry for the man. He doesn't seem very happy."

Harlan Hoffman, 37, was in a Fort Lauderdale yachting apparel store in 2007 when he saw a help wanted ad for Summerwind.

"There were two people from Australia there who said, 'Oh, good luck with that one. . . . We're still waiting to get paid by Summerwind.' I should have listened," Hoffman said.

The deckhand was shocked while buffing Greene's yacht and wound up hospitalized.

A boat's owner is supposed to take care of on-the-job medical costs, but Hoffman said Greene — whom he never met — told the insurance company he had never heard of Hoffman and that he didn't work on Summerwind. It took eight months and legal action that included affidavits from other crew members vouching for Hoffman and trashing Greene to get his bills paid.

"This guy Jeff Greene threw tons of money into new diving gear, but the crew's basic equipment — food and supplies — he didn't want to spend any money on. Summerwind has a terrible reputation,'' Hoffman said. "Mr. Greene's yacht is known to be a party yacht. When it went to Cuba, everybody talked about the vomit caked all over the sides from all the partying going on."

Hoffman couldn't believe it a few weeks back he saw Greene's campaign ads on TV.

"He has this act on TV talking about what a good guy he is, and he's anything but. He treats his own employees like s---,'' he said. "If he can't even treat his employees good, I don't see how he's going to do good for the American people."

John Walenczyk, the Summerwind deckhand, was aboard that notorious trip to Cuba.

"He didn't want to put a dollar into anything, but expected miracles from the crew. He doesn't care about anybody but himself — a real peach,'' said Walenczyk.

Political consultants across Florida can attest to how Greene bargained them down an extra few hundred or thousand dollars. Lawsuits suggest a super-rich businessman often happy to stiff vendors until a court orders otherwise.

Greene already has lost one campaign manager and shoved aside senior media consultant Joe Trippi. But he brushes off questions about temperament.

"I've ruffled some feathers. I'm not embarrassed because a handful of people didn't like me," Greene said. "Most of my employees would say, 'Wow, you were a tough boss, you were so aggressive, but I learned a lot from you.' . . . I would never expect anything from somebody I wouldn't expect from myself."

• • •

Nothing was handed to Greene, who grew up in Worcester, Mass., and still drops his R's when he speaks.

"To say he was middle class growing up is putting it kindly. The Greenes were worse than middle class,'' said Gary Smotrich, a lifelong friend.

In high school, Greene was a studious and accomplished band geek, his father a struggling textile machinery salesman whose business had tanked by Greene's senior year. His parents moved to Florida looking for better opportunities, but Greene opted to finish high school in Worcester and live with an aunt.

Then it was on to Johns Hopkins University, paid for with scholarships, extra jobs taking tickets for sporting events and teaching Hebrew. After answering a phone sales ad in the Palm Beach Post one summer, Greene proved to be enormously successful selling circus tickets. He had his own sales team, spent summers living out of his yellow Datsun 510 and wound up saving $100,000 by the time he finished Johns Hopkins in three years.

"He really sacrificed a lot in college, especially his social life, because he worked so hard," recalled Smotrich. "His parents had moved down to Florida without him, and it was hard."

Greene used his savings to enter Harvard business school in 1977, and there too made serious money on the side. While continuing to run his telephone sales operation, he started buying triple-decker apartment buildings near Cambridge to fix up and rent at premium rates.

His father, Marshall Greene, continued to struggle in Florida, trying various businesses including restocking vending machines in Palm Beach County.

"He was a proud man, and I know it was very hard on him. He didn't just lose his livelihood, he lost his pride,'' Greene recalled.

Greene was in his second year at Harvard business school when his dad suffered a massive heart attack and died at 51.

Greene went to West Palm Beach to help settle the affairs, a memory that still haunts him.

"His desk at his office was just covered with bills, stacks and stacks of unpaid bills. He was just juggling them, and deciding which ones he had to pay,'' Greene said. "I understand what it is to struggle. I understand what it is to lose everything."

• • •

After Harvard, Greene wanted a warm climate, but said Florida seemed too painful. He headed to Los Angeles and continued pursuing real estate.

"He was very methodical about it, because he came out to California with very little money,'' recounted Bob Kiley, a friend of 20 years in California. "He happened to catch the real estate market at a very good time, but he was very analytical about it."

Investing heavily in low-end apartment buildings, Greene was a millionaire by his mid 20s and a multimillionaire by his mid 30s. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican in 1982, a detail more than a little at odds with Greene's campaign rhetoric about Democratic ideals deeply ingrained in him.

He barely survived the early 1990s real estate crash, but by 2003 he worried the housing bubble could pop and sink him.

Ultimately he invested in complex credit default swaps — essentially betting the subprime mortgage market would implode — and his net worth jumped from roughly $800 million to $1.4 billion.

At one point, Greene owned more than 8,000 properties, and records show he was a hard-nosed landlord. One tenant complaining about heat and water problems in 2002 wound up on the phone with Greene. She said he threatened to get a city council aide who was advocating for her fired and scoffed when the woman said she was complaining to then-Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.

"Mr. Greene replied, 'Ha, ha, ha. I know Rocky personally. He and his wife were married in my house. I'll see to it that this council aide will be fired,' " according to an account in city records.

Greene acknowledges that he has received plenty of tenant complaints but says that goes with the territory and that he always strived to make his buildings the nicest on their blocks.

"Being a landlord's a tough business. Just by its nature, the relationship tends to be negative," he said.

• • •

As Greene's wealth grew, so did his reputation as a playboy bachelor. Vanity Fair in 2003 ran a spread about Greene's 12,000-square-foot mansion in the Hollywood Hills — complete with disco and a Moroccan "love den" — being a go-to spot for debauchery at late-night parties.

Greene's lavish parties drew the likes of Paris Hilton, Kato Kaelin and Mike Tyson, but he's quick to note he also entertains more erudite friends, from George Soros to Itzhak Perlman.

"I wouldn't call him a party animal, I would describe him as someone who enjoys going to parties,'' said Ivan Wilzig, a friend of Greene's known for his own outlandish parties in the Hamptons. "Jeff has friends from every profession and every walk of life. It makes him very worldly."

Wilzig is heir to a banking fortune and was described by the New York Times as a flamboyant peace activist whose "crusade for global peace entails remixing free-love hits from the '60s and '70s and advocating for greater tolerance of rave culture and the drug ecstasy." Greene's wife, Mei, now 35, dated Wilzig before marrying Greene in late 2007.

"Everybody talks about how Jeff has changed and how marriage matured his life's outlook, but he was moving in that direction for a long time. He was always an intellectual,'' said Rabbi David Baron, who performed the marriage and recounted Greene's toast at the briss of his son, Malcolm, now nine months.

"He said his son was born into a lot of wealth that Jeff was not born into and with that wealth comes great responsibility to give back,'' Baron said. "A lot of wealthy people, they race horses, they have a whole host of art collections. I think Jeff's passion today is making the world a better place."

Last year, Greene and his wife started a charitable foundation with $10 million. He said he regularly gives to friends' causes — most recently $25,000 to a Perlman music program and $15,000 to a charity started by his friend Denise Rich, wife of financier Marc Rich who was notoriously pardoned by former President Bill Clinton.

• • •

Crazy as it sounds for a political rookie who already has spent about $10 million of his own money running for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, Greene is doing the bare minimum: several days off a week, almost no events before 11 a.m. and no overnight campaign trips. Multimillionaire newcomer Rick Scott has spent about three times as much money as Greene running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, though Greene's net worth is six times more than Scott's.

"We'll do what we need to do,'' shrugged Greene, his stocking feet on a coffee table as the Atlantic surf crashed outside his $24 million Palm Beach mansion.

It's the serene confidence of a man accustomed to getting his way. To him, the only thing surprising is that anyone might ultimately conclude Meek or Crist or Rubio would be a better senator.

"Anybody who objectively lays out our resumes next to each other . . . there's no question," he said. "If somebody were to say, objectively, 'Who's going to be the best suited to deal with the big issues facing our country,' they would say me."

He talks little about Crist and Rubio, but shows utter contempt for Meek.

"The longer I've campaigned and the more I learn about him, the less respect I have for him," Greene said.

An engaging man with an easy and infectious smile, Greene gets prickly over questions about his lavish parties, his fancy planes and his friendships with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Heidi Fleiss. The best and the brightest can get turned off of public service when the press focuses on such personal issues, he said.

"We have serious problems in the country, and to talk about all this silliness, the press is doing a disservice to the people,'' Greene said. "The problems in our country are getting more and more complex and our leaders are getting less and less competent. . . . This campaign isn't about money. It's about giving back."

Times staff writer Kris Hundley and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Jeff Greene's path to Senate campaign shows he is uncompromising, sometimes to a fault 07/31/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 4:47pm]

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