Sometimes Riptide likes to reminisce about our long and circuitous relationship with Michelle Spence-Jones. Like the good ol' days, last June, when she was still Overtown/Liberty City commissioner and we were trying to track her down for comment about her involvement in the case of since-convicted grand thief Rev. Gaston E. Smith. We knew we would find her at Café Soul, the Liberty City eatery owned by her family's company, Karym Ventures. We ate a pressed tuna salad sandwich and drank a bottle of Orangina while she chatted with constituents.
A bit on the dry side, it was not the best sandwich Riptide has ever used as an excuse to lurk somewhere. But it did the job: Eventually, Spence-Jones gave us a big, smiling "No comment." Say what you will about her, but even when she's blowing you off, the suspended commissioner makes it sound like she's offering you a slice of rhubarb pie.
However, Café Soul, along with the neighboring Yellow Moon Spa, also owned by her family, has always exhibited some very Spence-Jonesian finances -- characterized by the nose-crinkling mixture of personal business interests, political cronyism, and government funds -- that are at the heart of her legal problems today. She's been charged with grand theft for an alleged 2004 scheme that had her forging letters from then-Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler in order to secure $50,000 in county grant money to spend on the businesses.
In the aftermath of the indictment, Gov. Charlie Crist has suspended her twice, and her district has now been handed over to Rev. Richard Dunn. And the once-proud café, plastered with campaign posters for political allies and known for poetry slams, is up for rent. In late 2009, Karym Ventures was evicted from the location after the group didn't pay rent for two years, according to the landlord, Able Traders LLC. The abandoned café and spa are still stocked with Karym's furniture, and this past January, a judge gave the group permission to take back its belongings.
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Ever inquisitive, we called the number on the For Rent sign and learned the owners are asking $1,000 to $1,100 a month for the café property. "But you should know," warned the real estate agent, "this place is not set up properly at all to be a restaurant. There's no working kitchen or bathroom."
All of that county cash, and the place lacked basic amenities? Like we said: Spence-Jonesian finances.
We called the ex-commish herself, and after quickly denying Karym had been evicted -- despite the pink eviction notice on the front door -- Spence-Jones promised to call back in "two minutes." She did not.
In other words, she blew us off. But ever so sweetly.