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Collier growth had seamy side

Published Nov. 4, 2001|Updated Sep. 10, 2005

For developers like Robert Hardy, Collier County in the 1990s was close to paradise.

At a time when Naples boasted the hottest housing market in the country, county officials catered to Hardy's every need. They rubber-stamped his plans, treating him with such deference they hesitated to speak his name aloud.

The reason the 73-year-old Hardy got such special treatment, according to prosecutors, is that he had three of the five county commissioners in his pocket. He gave them free golf games, free lunches, a $100,000 loan and other favors. He even helped pay for one commissioner's wedding reception.

A wide-ranging investigation into corruption in Collier County has led to felony charges against Hardy _ who pleaded no contest to racketeering last week _ as well as charges against the three commissioners, a former county manager, Hardy's son and four others.

It has also pulled back the curtain on the seamy side of Collier's 1990s development boom, unveiling a cast of players that included ruthless gangsters, a philanthropic con man and the founder of ESPN.

"What was going on was endemic, institutional corruption," special prosecutor Michael Von Zamft, who is leading the investigation, said. County officials did not blink at accepting favors from Hardy and others, Von Zamft said, because "they've been doing it for years. . . . They thought it was nothing important."

Hardy was not the only developer on whom county officials smiled. They approved so many golf course subdivisions that Naples now has the nation's second-highest density of holes per person.

Gated country clubs have sprawled well beyond Naples' urban boundaries, wiping out thousands of acres of farm, swamp and forest. By 1999 the commissioners' refusal to rein in development spurred state officials to slap a building moratorium on Collier.

Although Fortune 500 executives continue to plunk down hundreds of thousands of dollars for homes that hug the fairway, Collier residents can now see the dark side of their boom. They face higher taxes, inadequate sewer plants and overpumped water wells _ the legacy, some say, of commissioners who were working for developers and not the voters.

"We have a crisis in government, the roads are jammed beyond redemption, there are problems with services that aren't being rendered and it all goes back to the special favors that were given to special people," said Collier GOP Chairman Mike Carr. "The consequences to the people here are immeasurable."

For two years, Gov. Jeb Bush has been pushing for greater local control over growth. But Collier's corruption is a strong argument for continued state oversight, said Charles Pattison of 1,000 Friends of Florida, a growth management watchdog group.

Seeing commissioners led away in handcuffs, he said, "undermines public confidence in the ability of local officials to make impartial decisions."

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