CLEARWATER — While campaigning for the state House of Representatives, property owner and radio host Fabian Calvo has touted his skill in running a $20 million real estate company that spans the state.
"I am a successful small-businessman who believes state government should be run like a business," Calvo wrote in campaign literature. "This is the type of leadership that is needed in Tallahassee, leadership from the small business world, people that have created jobs, paid payrolls, balanced budgets."
Renters and former property managers of Calvo say that's precisely his problem. He's a slumlord, they say, alleging he fails to pay his debts and lets property degrade into disrepair. Two ex-employees are taking him to court.
Calvo, whose company Calvo Management International owns 500 apartments and houses nearly 1,000 tenants across six counties, said the criticism is a baseless attempt at slander or blackmail.
"It's just like any other business. There are always going to be people who are disgruntled," said Calvo, 31. "The reality is, I've made a commitment to these people."
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Cindy Salo was hired by Calvo as the manager of Crystal Palm Apartments in Crystal River last year. She served as the on-site operator of the 40-unit complex, signing leases, collecting rent and coordinating repairs.
But the apartments, she said, were falling apart. Doors and walls rotted. Stoves, fans and refrigerators broke. Central heat and air-conditioning stopped working for months.
Salo said attempts at repair were stifled by Calvo, who delayed paying contractors until months after their work. Others weren't paid at all. One cleaner who was never paid threatened to protest outside the complex.
"He's late with all the vendors and he's late with the people who work for him," Salo said. "He can't pay, but he wants everyone to do the work for him."
Residents at Crystal Palm say the problems have lasted for years.
The sink in Rose Mastin's two-bedroom unit leaked for months, flooding her bathroom. A glass window fell on Cortney Carmichael's 3-year-old daughter. Bad wiring ruined their electronics. The locks on their front doors fell out.
Every month, they pleaded for help.
"Fabian's problem is he won't release the money," Mastin said. "He knows about all these problems."
Salo summed up her frustrations in a Feb. 24 e-mail to Calvo, who continued to demand new leases. She told him she had just lost two tenants — one because of a hole in the shower wall and another because of a lack of heat during a hard freeze.
"You promised them their doors, windows & heat would be taken care of … but nothing's been done. The estimates I've sent go unnoticed," she wrote. "After a year, they're still waiting."
Calvo, who said he has spent tens of thousands of dollars this year on upkeep, kept his reply brief: "Your e-mail is completely out of step and out of line," he wrote. "Thanks for telling me how you really feel."
Days later, Salo was fired.
Salo has filed a lawsuit in Citrus County against Calvo, his company and the complex in an attempt to recoup what she says is more than $4,000 in unpaid expenses and bonuses. Mediation set for last week was postponed until next month.
Calvo said Salo's claims are lies. He said she didn't account for payments already given to her, and that leasing bonuses she expected were reversed when the tenants left before six months.
Jim Wedemeier, who worked as a property manager for Crystal Palm and Julian Villas in Leesburg, also plans to sue Calvo in Lake County. Expenses Calvo owed to Wedemeier and contractors, he said, were almost always paid late.
Calvo's response? "I'm a small business," Wedemeier recalled. "I don't have the money."
Calvo said he fired Wedemeier when his job performance faltered after his son died in a car accident last year. Wedemeier said Calvo posted an ad to replace him on Craigslist the day of his son's death.
"His excuse was, 'I have to look out for myself,' " Wedemeier said. " 'I don't know how you're going to respond.' "
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Property managers still working for Calvo say tenants' problems aren't his fault.
Mark Slomka, the manager of Julian Hills Apartments near Winter Haven, said Calvo has never failed to pay contractors. Some have complained, he said, when payments came later than they would have liked.
Maintenance workers "expect to get paid immediately or within two weeks. To do that immediately is almost impossible," Slomka said. "Some vendors don't like that."
Calvo's critics "are clearly out to attack Fabian because he is a public figure," said Luis Piamba, a manager working in Calvo's Clearwater office. "It's a shame, because most of what they probably have (said) is not anything close to the truth."
Complaints have been filed against Calvo in recent years with the Better Business Bureau, Pinellas County's Department of Consumer Protection and the Citrus County Fire Marshal. All have been resolved.
So, too, has a lien issued against Calvo by Pinellas County, which claimed he failed to pay a large water bill in December. Calvo said the unjust bill should have been directed to the tenant.
James Leichtenschlag, who has served as a member of Clearwater condo associations with Calvo, said he has trouble making payments and is "severely delinquent" with dues.
Leichtenschlag took Calvo to court last month, alleging the Edgewater Drive condo association director stopped paying for flood insurance. Filed incorrectly against Calvo instead of his company, the case was dismissed.
"Everybody doing business with him gets hosed. It certainly flies in the face of what he preaches on his (radio) show," Leichtenschlag said. "He's got an integrity problem."
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Calvo doesn't hide his politics. His weekday talk show, broadcast on 1340-AM from 3 to 4 p.m., discusses daily news with a conservative nationalist viewpoint. His Web sites and Twitter feed rail against socialism, liberal policies and the Obama administration.
He hopes his conservative platform will win him the state House District 45 seat, represented by Dunedin businessman Thomas Anderson. Three other Republicans — Kathryn Starkey, Carl Folkman and Richard Corcoran — have filed to vie for the position in next August's primary election.
Calvo lives outside of the borders of District 45, which covers parts of north Pinellas and Pasco counties. He said he would move to Dunedin if elected.
Though considered a newcomer to the race, Calvo on Thursday earned his biggest endorsement yet: Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke.
"He's conservative," Burke said. "He's energetic. I think he's a person of values."
Allegations of misconduct, he said, are a side effect of running a company.
"I think if you see anyone in business for a long time," Burke said, "you'll see them involved in lawsuits."
His former managers couldn't disagree more. They said they're still waiting to be paid.
"He put his political career ahead of his payment plan," Wedemeier said. "If you're not paying your employees, you're putting your money somewhere."
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.