TAMPA — Janet Cruz, a Democratic candidate in the special election for the District 58 state House seat, has a history of financial difficulties that includes worthless check charges and a foreclosure in the 1990s.
Cruz, who divorced her first husband in 1993, said that was a difficult time in her life.
"I was a single mom, supporting myself, supporting my kids, trying to make ends meet," she said.
Among her troubles: Brookwood Medical Center was awarded a $206 judgment from her and then-husband Ramon Cruz in 1991. She faced worthless check charges, each for less than $150, in 1993 and 1999. In 1994, a judge ordered her to pay $2,300 to Manufacturer's Bank of Florida. In 1999, a judge ordered her to pay $4,881 to Mercury Finance Co. of Florida. A bank began foreclosing on a home she owned with her first husband.
Around the time of the divorce, she said, her husband closed his optical store and declared bankruptcy. But Cruz said she chose to work two jobs — days at Cigna Health Care and nights at a grocery story — to pay off the debt.
"I had to refinance my house so I could pay all that off, and that's what I did," she said. "I took care of it."
Cruz, who married physician Stephen Rifkin in 2003, became caught up in a scam orchestrated by a man now serving 26 years in federal prison for mortgage and bank fraud, identity theft and passport forgery.
Matthew Cox pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud and grand theft charges in 2002.
Cruz bought a home at 101 E. Amelia Ave. in Tampa from Cox and his company, Urban Equity, in July 2003.
"My son and I were going to rehab it together," Cruz said. "He wanted to become somebody who would do some urban renewal. That was our mission."
Cruz said she made a small down payment and Urban Equity arranged financing for what she thought was a $90,000 purchase, and spent about $10,000 fixing it up.
She said she later learned from a St. Petersburg Times reporter that Cox had a criminal past and had recorded the sale at $233,000 without her knowledge.
"I was truly a victim of these guys. They were scam artists," she said.
Cox disappeared in December 2003, shortly before the Times published an investigative report about his dubious business dealings. He was arrested in 2006 after about two years on the run.
After learning about Cox's criminal activities, Cruz said, she walked away from the property and left it in the hands of the trust that had lent her the money to buy it. Metropolitan Ministries now owns it, according to the Hillsborough County property appraiser's Web site.
Cruz met Cox when she was working on Bob Buckhorn's 2003 Tampa mayoral campaign, she said. Cox asked her to research zoning issues in the Ybor City historic district for him and his partners, and she did.
"They seemed very sharp. They gave me this big, long spiel about what they wanted to do to renew Ybor City. I loved it," she said.
She never faced any charges related to Cox's dealings. Cruz also said she did not get paid for the zoning research work.
Cruz will face Democrats Pat Kemp and Gil Sanchez in a Jan. 26 special primary election. They're seeking to replace Michael Scionti, who resigned the post to take a Defense Department job.
Republicans Hunter Chamberlin and Jackie Rojas-Quinones also are running. The Democratic-leaning district includes a large Latin population and stretches from Seminole Heights to West Tampa to Town 'N Country.
Times staff writer Jeff Testerman and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.