By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
"I personally believe that the least qualified person to run this island is Rod White," Houtkin says emphatically, referring to the president of the POA, who sits a few feet away. Some of the meeting's few dozen attendees break into applause. Houtkin waits for the noise to subside, then qualifies his statement.
"He has demonstrated bad judgment, and in my opinion," he says, and pauses. "Moral turpitude."
A roar of dissent erupts from some of the chairs. Houtkin groans loudly and runs his hand across his forehead in exasperation.
"It's not the forum!" complains a derisive voice in back.
"The truth cannot be said "
"Shut up!" croaks one woman.
"You shut up, you witch!" Houtkin yells.
"You're out of order!" screams a man not visible in the video.
"You're out of order."
Following a cacophony of scuffling and expletive-laden shouting among various audience members, Houtkin faces the group and asks, "You going to beat me up?"
"Yeah I'll beat you up!" says a man.
"Come on!" taunts the retired stock trader.
At the bottom of the frame, Jerry Cohen, a silver-haired man in his seventies wearing a pink button-down shirt, is seen standing up. He heads to the table where Houtkin sits. The camera pans toward him. Uniformed security guards run into the frame.
"THIS IS A DISASTER FOR OUR ISLAND!" yells Houtkin. "THIS IS A DISASTER!"
He turns to his restrained would-be assailant. "Smack me! Go ahead, smack me!"
The video was shown in a loop on Williams Island's private television network for days following the altercation. Houtkin and his neighbors live a life of luxury in this elite gated community of high-rise towers in Aventura, but lately the mood has been tense. The exclusive enclave on Dumbfoundling Bay appeared to be experiencing growing pains.
Less than a mile from the strip malls and traffic jams of Biscayne Boulevard, Williams Island is a world unto itself. Visitors drive along a short causeway and pass through two checkpoints before arriving in the heart of the 80-acre paradise. Vines climb on palm trees and large fans turn slowly in the verandahs of luxury villas. Children languidly float on styrofoam noodles in sparkling swimming pools. Retirees in oxford shirts and loafers gently stroke their already-gleaming megayachts with chamois cloths. Mute employees sweep the clay tennis courts smooth.
For most of the nearly 2000 residents on the island, life does not get more complicated than that. But every community has its civic-minded upstarts, its Thomas Paines and Martin Luthers, who concern themselves with the destiny of their maintenance fees (around $1400 a month for most residents of Williams Island), and who are prone to producing the occasional manifesto. It is within this small population the members of the property owners association, their supporters, and their detractors that a rift has opened.
It began about three years ago, when the POA decided to purchase the Island's tennis courts, spa, clubs, and restaurant from the company that developed the land, the Trump Group (a South African family with no connection to Donald). Residents approved the deal by a four-to-one margin, but to a minority of dissenters, it contained questionable elements: a price that seemed high for buildings that had fallen into disrepair, a marketing campaign designed to smother criticism, and a contract that was under wraps. The ensuing split took a turn toward the personal, and for some, the intense security of the island originally seen as an asset took on Orwellian overtones. Smear campaigns were undertaken, anonymous letters were circulated, and lawsuits were filed.
So-called "common interest communities" like Williams Island espouse an almost Jeffersonian model of self-determination. Instead of paying municipal governments for services like trash pick-up and street maintenance, property owners fork over monthly sums to be managed by fellow residents. But while it's a city's duty to ensure that specific tasks are handled by licensed practitioners (be they accountants, lawyers, or engineers), the chief qualification of community association leadership is often enthusiasm, regardless of ability to interpret a financial statement or a legal document. Ineptitude is rampant and embezzlement not unheard of: In late February residents of a Boca Raton community filed a lawsuit alleging their former association president had stolen more than $100,000. In Lakeland a judge had to declare a "special master" of a community association after two different boards both claimed to be in control, each calling the other illegitimate.
The contentious scene that unfolded at Williams Island is far from atypical. Bill Raphan, an employee of Florida's Condominium Ombudsman's Office, says that off-duty police officers and fisticuffs are common at meetings of the state's 20,000 community associations. "I've seen some pretty violent stuff," he says, recalling the time a resident pulled a gun on him during an attempted mediation. Raphan left under security escort.
In July 2004 the Aventura police were dispatched to Williams Island after a resident complained about "a foul odor" coming from the rocks behind one of the buildings. Security personnel found the source to be something wrapped in a blue cloth and covered in flies.
"The cloth was knotted several times and in different ways," according to the police report. "Inside were pieces of what appeared to be a large chicken. The animal was cut up in several pieces along with fruits and white candles, which with my experience was some kind of Santería ritual."
The dead chicken's origins and purpose were unknown, but given the events that have transpired since it was discovered, one has to wonder whether the ritual was a blessing or a curse.
Aerial photos from the late Sixties show Williams Island as a triangular, barren patch of sand with a blob of mangroves in the middle. Developer Norman Cohen dredged the surrounding seabed, filling the marsh to make solid ground. His son, Gary Cohen, who does not live on the island, has teenage memories of hacking through the mangroves with a chainsaw to make a road for construction vehicles. Today, he says, the environmental mitigation fees would make such a development a near impossibility. Back then nobody cared.
Norman Cohen sold the land to the Trump Group, who envisioned ten 30-story towers, a marina, a restaurant, and a spa. (The developer eventually capped construction at eight towers, although a ninth is now planned.) Construction began in 1983.
The developers sought to cultivate an air of exclusivity and refinement. They baptized the development the "Florida Riviera" and trademarked the name, and in promotional material touted its "spirited blend of 1920s French chic and la dolce vita, served up with a splash of tropical elan."
Musicians performed on the construction site for future residents. Sophia Loren was named official spokesperson for the island and was featured in advertising campaigns in the New York Times and Money magazine. Her apartment there was featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in 1987. Host Robin Leach referred to Williams Island as an "exclusive billion-dollar condominium community.... Don't be surprised to see $200,000 Italian sports cars. It's all part of this money-no-object, Europe-in-America feel that Sophia helped give just the right accent to."
Condo prices started at $250,000 and went as high as $1 million in 1985. Maintenance fees in 1987 ran $550 a month according to the New York Times. (Williams Island, the paper added, "is far in every respect from the Riviera, but it does have decent apartments.")
Roy Emerson, an Australian tennis player who won 28 grand slam titles in the Sixties, was retained as resident pro of the Williams Island Racquet Club. Season premiere parties were held each December black-tie events featuring seven-course dinners at the island's restaurant, Willie's.
"We do not want to invite outsiders onto our island," a Williams Island marketer told the Miami Herald in 1985. "What we're trying to do is create a truly private villa." The definition of "outsiders" was not provided, but the marketer noted, "You won't have a Publix here, for sure."
Residents who bought apartments in the early Nineties remember flutists playing by the swimming pool and jewelry trunk shows with representatives from Christie's. Residents had access to an off-site beach club and golf course, as well as reciprocal memberships to upscale clubs in major cities around the country.
Once most of the units were sold, however, the opulence faded. First the Trumps sold the beach club and the golf course. No longer needed to draw in potential buyers, the club and restaurant became money pits for the developers. They closed them down. The Trumps stopped subsidizing entertainment and the concierge service, which had offered services like personal shoppers. Sophia Loren moved away.
By the late Nineties, a cloud of nostalgia had settled over the development. There were the good old days, and then there was now.
Jan Brooks lived the glory days. He moved to Florida from New York after retiring from a Wall Street career, and has lived on Williams Island for nearly sixteen years. He shows a photo in a white cardboard frame embossed with the Williams Island logo in silver. In it he and his wife are in formalwear, flanked on one side by a very tan Tony Bennett and on the other by Sophia Loren. "This was taken the night before I spent one million dollars on this apartment," he says with evident satisfaction. (Miami-Dade County property records indicate the apartment was purchased for $700,000 in 1991, by a trust in his wife's name.)
Brooks sits on a beige leather couch in the living room of his 22nd floor condominium. His apartment is spacious and full of light, with beige leopard print carpet and gold accents. The day is sunny and through the large windows are expansive views of the Intracoastal waterway, the high rises on Collins Avenue, and the sea. Brooks wears a patterned button-down shirt, khakis, and white velcro-closure New Balances.
Brooks has been on the board of the Williams Island Property Owners Association from the time he moved into his apartment. This year he did not run for office, although he remains in charge of various POA-related matters, like securing the community's cable contract. When the Trump Group closed down the restaurant and clubs, Brooks became one of the various advocates who lobbied to purchase the common areas.
"We hired an independent consultant to evaluate the deal and an attorney to negotiate," he says. "We put together a package that included the cost of acquisition. About 80 percent of the people voted in favor and twenty percent against. And in that minority there were some people who were quite vocal."
The consultant Brooks refers to was advertised in POA literature as a "third-party independent expert" retained to "research, provide comparative analyses and a dollar valuation of the Clubs of Williams Island." But John N. Johnson does not have a real estate license either in Florida or in Georgia, where he lives. His Florida CPA license expired in 1989. The phone number listed for his Georgia business is obsolete.
The minutes from a POA clubs committee meeting in January 2003 record members deciding, "What will cause residents to want to act in favor of acquisition are greed and fear."
It seems that Johnson was hired to propagate this philosophy. His plan, which was obtained by New Times, stated that "we must convince owners that the sum being paid to the [developers] is not excessive, but rather eminently justified." He encouraged targeting "champions" who would lead the effort for a yes vote, and "bell cows" who would influence their neighbors.
But for the residents who opposed the deal, the financial details seemed poorly bargained. Some felt the price $22.5 million for acquisition and renovation was too high for unprofitable businesses whose buildings were in a state of disrepair. The purchase would result in a $180 monthly increase in maintenance fees plus a mandatory, $1300 annual health club membership for new residents, which they worried would depress property values. Their condominiums served as the loan's collateral and could be liened if the POA were to default on repayment. And there was the background of the three residents who negotiated the deal: Each had had questionable financial run-ins.
In 1983 shareholders of Warner Communications sued clubs committee chairman and current POA president Rod White, along with other Warner directors, for fraud and insider trading. In an SEC investigation White was cited for issuing "a series of false and misleading public statements that led the investing public to believe that Warner's operations would continue their unbroken pattern of dramatic growth," according to the filed complaint. The collective group of defendants ended up paying more than $18 million to settle the case. White did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
Harris Friedman was the second member of the clubs committee, and the POA's treasurer at the time the board decided to acquire the common areas. In 1989, as director of a Florida savings and loan subsidiary called the Enstar Group, shareholders sued Friedman and the other directors and officers for fraud and racketeering. Friedman and two other officers settled the claims against them out of court, and he was prohibited from holding office in any federally insured depository institution. Friedman also did not return New Times's calls.
In 1987 Jan Brooks was charged with criminal contempt by the SEC, and accepted a four-year suspension from trading stocks, and a $4000 fine as settlement. Following his settlement, six months after he had quit his job and sold his share of the firm he started, Brooks, Weinger, Robbins & Leeds, it was raided by agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency in a cocaine bust. "The young professionals at the Manhattan penny-stock trading firm allegedly sold cocaine in stairwells, traded drugs for insider stock tips, and routinely signed false names on important documents, among other offenses," reported a Time magazine article from April 1987. "After going to work for the firm as an assistant broker, one undercover agent claims she was soon approached by colleagues who tapped their noses and asked if she öpartied.'" Brooks was not accused of violating drug laws.
Brooks contends that the drug use had nothing to do with him and that it had proliferated in the six months following his exit from the company. "The only reason to write about that would be to make me look bad," he says. "It was purely coincidental."
As for the SEC settlement, "That was twenty years ago," he says. "I settled with the SEC after I retired with my partners. A settlement was the best business decision." Asked whether his past might conflict with his work on the POA, where he co-managed over $15 million in condo fees each year with supervision limited to the small number of residents who cared enough to look through the budget, Brooks said: "I've been elected every year for fifteen years. I'm not in a position where people feel I am not doing a good job. I don't see how that is relevant."
Residents approved the purchase of the island's tennis courts, spa, clubs, and restaurant by a four-to-one margin in late fall 2003. The Williams Island POA purchased the property for $17 million in early 2004 and held a "New Beginnings Party" to celebrate in April of that year. Residents speaking with the Miami Herald that night were filled with pride. "We are responsible for our own destiny," said one. "This will breathe new life in the place," said another.
Brooks, White, and Friedman were presented with plaques inscribed with the words, "For your heroic and successful efforts in the acquisition of the club facilities."
For the twenty percent who opposed the deal, which also included five million dollars in renovations costs, the mood was bitter. "We happened to think $22 million is buying a pig in a poke," one disgruntled resident told New Times. A major flaw of the deal was yet to be revealed: One parcel of the common area was retained by the Trump Group. This land, along with a plot that Trump's original site plans intended as a low-rise shopping complex, was recently sold to developer Martin Margulies for seven million dollars. He is now planning to construct a 22-story high-rise there that will leave residents like Harvey Houtkin with a view of a parking garage.
The closing of the clubs acquisition marked the opening of the feud that led to enmity between Houtkin and White and the fight at the January POA meeting.
The February meeting was canceled.
George Tower, born George Theodoracopoulus, is the quintessential Floridaretiree. He wears a black polo shirt and gray shorts; his socks reach mid-calf. His sneakers are blindingly white. He is a tall man with a bit of gray around the edges of his black hair and a bit of a paunch starting to show. His cell phone ring is "Bittersweet Symphony" by the Verve and his teeth are adorned with clear braces. He is 42 years old.
Tower likes to speak in metaphors.
"In the summer of 2004, I fell in love," he begins. "She was a very beautiful woman. The more I knew her, the more her beauty blossomed." He pauses for dramatic effect.
"She seduced me. I couldn't live without her," he says. "Her name was Williams Island. The honeymoon ended quickly."
Tower drives a black Lexus SUV that glistens like a wet seal. Security guards in uniforms and safari hats wave him along as he rolls through the gated Williams Island entryway. Tower nods in greeting to the costumed guards. As he drives he points out the community's assets: the perimeter security, the marina with slips large enough for 150-foot yachts, the tennis courts, the landscaped foliage, the curving roads.
Tower is the development's resident gadfly. A couple of years ago he ran for a spot on the Property Owners Association. His detractors hired a private investigator, according to documents from a lawsuit they later filed, who found that Tower is married to an 83-year-old woman and controls most of her assets. The two have never lived together. Property records show Tower's condo was purchased for $367,500 in 2004 in the name of Tower Trust. His wife, Eleanor, lives in a community in Boca Raton for residents age 55 and older.
Tower acknowledges his marriage is atypical. "We were the best of friends for fifteen years and we have been married for eight years. So I'm 42 and she's 83. So what?" George visits her almost every day and drives her to medical appointments.
Before he moved to Florida his job was conducting morbidly themed tours in New York in a hearse, as a character named Paul Bearer. The business went under. Tower declared bankruptcy in the early Nineties, which is regarded as something of a faux pas in a monied community like Williams Island. These revelations, along with the fact that he exaggerated his education and work experience in his campaign material, effectively ended his chance for political success on the island.
Tower continued attending POA meetings, criticizing the board over its management of condo fees. He started a Website, www.wiowners.com, where similarly dissatisfied residents posted documents, questioned the integrity of their board members, and complained.
Tower found in POA expense reports that two POA employees had expensed a $225 lunch at Morton's Steakhouse to residents. The reports also revealed that Rod White, the board's president, expenses his cell phone bill to the association.
In August 2005 Tower held a meeting to discuss the POA's doings, which he says attracted 250 residents. Jan Brooks wrote a memo to his building discouraging attendance, calling it a "gripe session" organized by "dissident residents" who "have never had the real opportunity of experiencing the Williams Island lifestyle."
In November 2005 Tower sent a mass e-mail referring to POA board members as the "Policed Owners Association" and the "Williams Island Gestapo" after they proposed to station two off-duty police officers at what had become fairly rowdy POA meetings.
He included a sound clip of gunshots, intended as a joke. On Thanksgiving eve, police officers knocked on Tower's door. A POA board member, Jonathan Evans, had claimed Tower had made a threat on his life. Evans's wife, Jo-An, wrote a letter to residents describing Tower's e-mail as "terrifying," inviting residents to come over to read it "and hear the hideous, frightening audio download." The police report was later amended after a police officer read the e-mail and determined that it was not, in fact, threatening.
Evans, Jan Brooks, and Rod White sued Tower for harrassment in 2006. The lawsuits are still pending, according to court documents, but the revelations from plaintiffs' deposition of Tower included details of his marriage and two declarations of bankruptcy. A DVD of Tower's videotaped deposition was distributed around the island.
In January 2006 an anonymous complaint was filed against Tower to the Department of Children and Families alleging he was exploiting his wife. When police showed up unannounced, she told them "a jealous person is making these claims" and that she "does not feel that Tower is exploiting her," according to the police report. The complaint was deemed unfounded. In October 2006 police reports from the Aventura Police Department showed Tower reported anonymous death threats left on his answering machine.
The attacks soon spread to Tower's associates. Brooks filed a complaint against Tower's lawyer, Philip Vova, alleging Vova harassed Brooks by threatening to issue a summons to him at the condo association's holiday party. The complaint was dismissed by the Florida Bar. Brooks also filed a complaint about Vova's wife, Mindy Gross, a detective with the Miami-Dade Public Schools Police Department. Brooks claimed Gross used her position as a police officer to gain background information about him and harass him. This complaint was deemed unfounded as well. Last week, after being interviewed by New Times, Brooks filed a motion to have Vova removed as Tower's attorney.
Logs kept by security personnel indicate that the general manager of the POA, Brian Reich, asked employees to keep track of Tower's movements leading up to the 2006 board elections. In October 2005 a safety supervisor wrote, "In reference to a memo that was delivered on the previous night, Supervisor Soto reviewed video as per management request. At approximately 2 a.m. resident of [Tower's apartment number] was seen with memos in hand southside."
During the course of the lawsuits, Tower and his lawyer subpoenaed the contents of a POA computer that belonged to the association's general manager. Its hard drive revealed the existence of a clique that would put any suburban high school to shame.
A forensic computer investigator uncovered most of the e-mails and documents on the manager's hard drive, including "The Morning News," a daily e-mail written by resident Ellen Renck to a small group of recipients that included Rod White, Jan Brooks, and Reich (technically an employee of Tower, and of every other resident who paid maintenance fees). It defined itself in opposition to Tower, who was featured prominently in a picture on the masthead. Renck updated the e-mail with statistics monitoring the number of comments on www.wiowners.com (sometimes called the "Babble of Tower"), and included a section reserved for caustic gossip called "Heard on the Street." ("A little bird whispered in my ear yesterday that the hookers are not brought to Med Village as earlier alleged, but rather to a rusting old tub anchored in the marina " said one.) There was also the occasional racist rant. "I want to go home to Savannah and not hear a word of Spanish and look only at blond, blue-eyed Americans and hear Travis Tritt and Faith Hill instead of looking at any more platanos y meduros [sic] y churrasco y churros and black hair and eyes," she wrote in November 2005.
Renck, by no means an untalented writer, even included a "First Psalm of Williams Island" that referenced Tower:
Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of [George] Tower, we shall fear no weevil: for Jonathan [Evans] art with us. Thy Rod [White] and thy Jan [Brooks], their victories comfort we. He prepareth a Thai House table before us, not in the presence of nine "enemies." He annointeth our heads with lemongrass. My cup better runneth over with green apple martini.
"That was personal and private communication between friends," said Renck when contacted by telephone. "This is a perfectly lovely place to live and there are very few dissatisfied people."
It is hard to imagine that the amenities Williams Island residents pay an extra $180 a month on top of a $1400 annual maintenance fee to receive are worth the money. The restaurant has a cruise-ship feel to it. Food is laid out buffet-style, at a cost of fourteen dollars for lunch and up to $39 for dinner. Slabs of meat sit under heat lamps at carving stations manned by an employee costumed in a chef's hat, wielding a carving knife and fork. On a recent visit around noon the cafe was nearly empty.
The sixteen tennis courts are beautiful, but on two separate visits they appeared to be underutilized (a recent POA estimate determined about 250 residents a little more than ten percent use the courts). The Island Club, an event space and bar, is still under construction. Its kitchen, once occupied by catering company Barton G., is unused. The rest is covered in plastic sheets and paint dust. The health club and spa, where a membership costs $1300 a year, is run-of-the-mill, offering nothing one wouldn't find at a gym half that price.
When he ran for the POA board, Harvey Houtkin was the victim of an anonymous letter campaign documenting his run-ins with the SEC. (In 2001, as CEO of day trading firm All-Tech Direct, Houtkin and his company paid $525,000 to settle SEC charges of improper margin lending and misleading advertising). Houtkin won anyway.
"My run-ins were based on restructuring Wall Street, not taking little old ladies' life savings and selling them crap," he says, perhaps referring to his earlier characterization of Rod White's "moral turpitude."
Houtkin ran for the board after his maintenance fees began climbing. "In every aspect big money is being spent without much accounting," he says. "That's why the people running the community have to have impeccable integrity." Florida's condo laws, he added, are a "toothless tiger."
"It's the homestead state," he concluded, referring to the Florida constitution, which exempts homestead property from judgment creditors in cases of bankruptcies or liens. "It's almost impossible to throw people out of their homes here. They're judgment-proof. So Florida attracts a lot of shady people. Go to Boca Raton. They could drop a net over the whole city."
For all the bickering, every resident of Williams Island interviewed remains fond of the community even if they dislike some of their neighbors.
"They were hoodwinked when they bought the island from the Trumps," said Henry Kramerz, an elderly resident who serves on the board of his building. "We pay almost $1400 a month in fees. When I first got out of the army [in 1949] I paid $1100 a year for my house. We don't use the spa, we don't use the cafe because we weren't happy with the food, the island club is still being rebuilt."
He sighs. "The problem is, it's such a nice place."