In his first public comments on the controversy over the hidden identities of the Rolling Rock Trust's owners, the trust's representative said Wednesday that none of the owners have ever had any political connections or ambitions. Inverness lawyer Michael Mountjoy also said the members are not past or current elected or appointed government officials, their relatives and anyone who has ever appeared before a county board or committee.
Mountjoy's comments came one day after the County Commission agreed to a three-party land transaction that is expected to result in the county owning a 100-acre site in Lecanto for a new jail.
Under the plan, the trust will sell the land to a company owned by mining operator Frank Colitz's family for $605,000. That company, Lecanto Real Properties Inc., will then swap with the county for 100 acres nearby.
The three-party transaction was arranged so that the trust would not have to reveal its makeup, which state law requires of anyone engaged in a land deal with government.
The trust's efforts to avoid disclosure has provoked the wrath of some citizens and an inquiry by State Attorney Brad King's office.
On Monday, a letter from King to the commissioners suggested that the arms-length transaction would not absolve the trust of the disclosure requirement. On Wednesday, an investigator went to County Attorney Larry Haag's office to get copies of documents related to the transaction, Haag said.
Despite the state attorney's interest in the case, Mountjoy said he sees no reason why the names should have to be revealed.
"I'm not dealing with the county," he said. "The money is coming out of Mr. Colitz's pocket, not the county's.
"I can sell to anyone I want to privately and whatever they do with it, that's up to them," he said.
The draft contract between Colitz and Rolling Rock, however, requires Colitz to swap the land immediately with the county.
Mountjoy said he realizes it may be difficult for the public to understand why the trust's owners would want their identities kept secret.
"I don't know how to reassure people, other than to say the people are private and didn't really want to be involved," he said, adding that he has known a number of people who do not want anyone to know that they have any money or own property.
When asked whether privacy was a compelling enough reason to abandon the first deal, in which the county would have swapped directly with the trust, Mountjoy said, "how important is a person's privacy? I don't know. . . . I would have to say I value privacy over profit."
Mountjoy said he does not own a part of the trust and is prevented by attorney-client privilege from revealing the owners' names. Some live in Citrus County, he said.
"As far as I know, there isn't any possible connection to anybody even remotely politically motivated" Mountjoy said.
Mountjoy also revealed that:
Walt Connors, an Inverness businessman and former county clerk, approached him about two weeks ago about buying the Rolling Rock land. Connors has strongly advocated building the jail in Inverness instead of Lecanto. Presumably, Connors' purchase of the intended jail site would have increased the chances of the jail being built in Inverness.
"I don't know if he was serious or not," Mountjoy said. "Walt came in and said, "How about us buying that property?' "
The county, not the trust, first proposed the land deal.
Mountjoy said he does not know how the county became interested in the trust's land. Commissioner Hank Cohen said at a County Commission meeting earlier this year that someone had told him that the property might be available for the jail. Cohen would not identify the person. Both Haag and Mountjoy say they do not know who it was.
Mountjoy said he was not interested in a swap until it became clear that another party _ Colitz _ would soon buy the trust's newly acquired land. "When there was someone else that was willing to pay that kind of money for it . . . that's twice what we paid for it," he said.
In 1987, the trust bought 400 acres in Lecanto for $1.2-million, or $3,000 an acre, Mountjoy said. Colitz is paying $605,000, or slightly more than $6,000 an acre, for the 100 acres it is acquiring in the three-party transaction.
Citrus officials and independent observers have asserted that the land the county is getting in the deal is more valuable than the land it is giving up. If that is true, the county may have paid too much when it bought its property in 1984 for $3,500 an acre. Three years later, the trust paid $500 less per acre for its adjacent land.
The land transaction is good for everyone, he insists. "The county gets the property it wants. The trust makes a profit on their property. Mr. Colitz gets the buffer he wants (for his mining operation). Now who is hurt?"
Haag said the deal would be finalized sometime after the Nov. 13 County Commission meeting. At that meeting, the commission has agreed to change the county's comprehensive plan to allow "extractive uses" on the property that will be traded to Colitz, Haag said.
Though that meeting will be held one week after the election, the two new commissioners will not yet be in office, Haag said. All four commission candidates for the two open seats have said they would like the jail to be in downtown Inverness.
"Right now (the commissioners) already have a contract, so I don't know how they could back out now," Haag said.