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Column: Tampa Bay business awards of dubious achievement

We all have our moments of dubious achievement.

In 2008 the Tampa Bay business world had more than its share of mishaps, wrong turns, mischaracterizations, fumbles, slipups, fairy tales, blunders, goofs, screwups, fabrications, mistakes, time-wasters, wishful thinking, confusions, bungles, canards, delusions, bloopers, muddles, miscalculations, lapses, fibs, crocks, falsehoods and whoppers.

Did I miss anything? Here's a selective look back at some of the events, companies and people so worthy of our catch-all honor, the You Did What? Awards of 2008.

Award: One company with the unusual feat of getting two awards this year is Wachovia Corp. In April the No. 1 bank in the Florida market had its knuckles rapped and was fined by federal regulators for aiding telemarketing businesses (and collecting millions of dollars in fees) that stole money out of the accounts of the bank's own (and other banks') customers.

It was, the Treasury Department said, "a pattern of misconduct that resulted in financial gain to the bank." Wachovia collected millions of dollars in fees as a result of the telemarketing schemes. Checks for $149 have just been sent to 740,000 consumers across the nation as part of a $150-million settlement.

Award: This same year, Wachovia also crumbled financially — largely from buying Golden West Financial Corp. and inheriting its rotten "Pick a Payment" mortgages. In a matter of weeks, Wachovia will become part of California's Wells Fargo & Co. It's a sober conclusion to a former industry leader.

Award: The Sunshine State is tops in mortgage fraud, said the Mortgage Asset Research Institute. By state, borrowers from Florida were No. 1, followed by those in California and Illinois.

Award: If mortgage fraud's not enough, we also came in first in another dubious arena. A new Department of Justice report covering the past decade found that Florida is the "most corrupt" state. That's based on the number of public officials, 824, convicted from 1998 through 2007.

Award: Two go to retailers Bennigan's and Tweeter, the parent of Sound Advice, for simply shutting their doors with no warning. Area Bennigan's workers faced locked doors and no final paycheck. And Sound Advice customers who had purchased TVs and other goods could only look at their purchases through store windows. The fate of those acquisitions remains unclear.

Award: To hedge fund Cerberus Capital Management, which bought hundreds of Albertsons grocery stores (including those in Florida), then sought — not one, but two — federal bailouts as owner of Chrysler and GMAC (which wants to become a bank to get Treasury aid).

Award: To local condo developer SimDag, which once planned to build the jazzy downtown Trump Tower Tampa, but instead got snookered out of $150,000 by an ex-con — could we even make this one up? — dubbed Father Barney who promised SimDag a much-needed $200-million loan. Result? No loan. No tower. Yes lawsuit.

Award: To the Arena Football League, for waiting too long to recognize its unworkable economic model and opting instead to mothball the next season until a way is figured out how to make money.

Gaffes galore! There's got to be a better way.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Column: Tampa Bay business awards of dubious achievement 12/17/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 21, 2008 9:08pm]

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