The Jockey Club's Wild Ride

For two decades it was a chic hangout for South Florida's most well-to-do. Now it's a money pit with a sordid story to tell.

"Mr. Machiavelli," Rodriguez says dryly of Anton. "He was rather proud of saying that The Prince is his favorite book, his personal bible, and it only took minutes after I met him for him to announce that he'd been to prison. He was a manipulator like you wouldn't believe. I first went in with the idea that me and my group would be developers or managers for developers, but it didn't take too long to realize that it would require ongoing cooperation with Eddie and company, and that just was not going to work.

"Eddie was a maniac, yelling and screaming for the flimsiest of reasons," Rodriguez continues. "At some point during the negotiations I wanted to cultivate a relationship with the Hermans, because I felt that a year from now, Eddie would either be dead, in jail, or out of this deal somehow."

George Hernandez says Anton's overbearing manner eventually proved too much to take: "Toward the end of November and into December, he had taken too much control and was starting to be antagonistic with the Hermans." (Everyone interviewed for this story who was at the Jockey Club at this time remembers at least one toe-to-toe shouting match between Stephanie Herman and Anton; Herman refuses to discuss it.)

"He had no right to do this," Hernandez adds curtly. "He was a peon, he was an employee. I dismissed him."

Getting rid of Anton, though, did nothing to help Hernandez finalize a deal for Jockey IV or even buy the existing club. When the first day of 1997 came, attorney Goodman says, Hernandez had paid neither the various debts and obligations still owed on the property, nor the agreed-upon down payment. As far as the Hermans were concerned, Hernandez's reign at the Jockey Club was over right then, even though he continued on at the club for some weeks.

While acknowledging that he couldn't come up with all of the funds, Hernandez says his departure from the scene was at least partially his choice.

"We'd had the intention to purchase the club, it's just that financial and legal problems came up," he offers. "The project really lost its appeal. I wasn't interested in running the club without owning it."

With Hernandez neither owning nor operating the facility, the first two months of 1997 became a bizarre interregnum. The height of the insanity was a party for South Florida magazine to which Hernandez had committed. For a while it appeared that the fete would fall through altogether. But the Hermans ponied up the necessary cash to pay the staff and the entertainment (aging Brit-rocker Dave Mason, flown in just for this performance), and the party was by all accounts a success. Publicist Garfinkle left the Jockey Club after this party and has since moved herself and her business to Boca Raton.

By the end of February Hernandez and Anton had other concerns -- the "financial and legal problems" to which Hernandez alluded above. Both were named in a lawsuit alleging that Hernandez, through his law practice, was selling mortgages on properties he didn't own. The plaintiffs in the case, which was filed February 27 and is still unresolved, are two national title-insurance underwriters that guaranteed titles insured by policies issued by Hernandez in his role as a title insurance agent.

In an affidavit, Lynn Wilburn, a private investigator retained by the title insurance firms, writes that on at least two separate occasions Bell Holdings Inc. gave Hernandez money for properties to which Hernandez did not hold title. (Bell Holdings is owned by 38-year-old entrepreneur Robert Bell, whose Banana Boat sunscreen was an international success and earned him millions. The Miami native, who sold his company to Playtex in 1993, recently re-entered the sunblock game with the Sea & Ski brand.)

Among these transactions, Wilburn writes, was $900,000 given to Hernandez to purchase outright "certain real property located at the Jockey Club"; namely, the fourteen hotel rooms -- which he never owned. Wilburn asserts in the affidavit that the deed Hernandez delivered to Bell Holdings for this property on September 24 of last year was fraudulent.

Robert Bell himself confirms that Bell Holdings did business with George Hernandez but won't comment in detail because of the litigation. "I wasn't really personally involved in the day-to-day operations of [Bell Holdings]," he adds.

In other instances, Wilburn continues, Hernandez persuaded Bell Holdings to lend money to people to buy real estate -- but in many cases, Wilburn writes, no purchase was made; Hernandez allegedly kept the money.

"It is my estimate that the Defendants have conspired to steal, and have in fact stolen, amounts in excess of $3 million," Wilburn writes in his affidavit. Though the acts he describes are crimes (notably mortgage fraud, a federal offense), no criminal charges have been filed in this matter against Hernandez or Anton. Wilburn would not comment on the specifics of his findings outside of what was set forth in his affidavit, but he did confirm that Hernandez and Anton were being investigated for these questionable transactions. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami would not comment for this story.

Possible criminal consequences notwithstanding, the civil case alone has drastically reshaped Hernandez's life. The judge appointed a receiver for Hernandez's law firm/mortgage brokerage/title insurance company. Shortly after the suit was filed, Hernandez resigned from the Florida Bar.

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