For Jay Love, it's going to take more than escaping the clutches of the IRS to convince voters he's ready to be the county's mayor
Jonathan Postal

To IRS With Love

Hooligan's Pub owner Jay Love touts himself as a common-sense alternative to the career politicians and slick elites populating the pack in the upcoming Miami-Dade mayoral election. He's self-made, an entrepreneur, he loves children! And as Love is the only Anglo in the race, his influence cannot be easily dismissed.

"Anybody that has the ability to be the sole magnet for an ethnic vote, and has the resources, is a potential danger," notes political consultant Bob Levy who happens to support Love's rival Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. "He's got a lot of potential for some primary damage." The primary is where Love took 20 percent of the vote in the 2000 mayor's race -- a heady showing for a newcomer, nudging veteran politico Diaz de la Portilla, who only got 20.9 percent of the vote. Love polled particularly high among white and black voters, according to voting records -- groups ostensibly upset with the way the Elian Gonzalez episode was handled. Love's mission this campaign is to distinguish himself beyond the protest vote.

"I can bring a businessman's common sense to government," Love, 57 years old, tells me while making a campaign stop outside Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho. "I'm the only true entrepreneur among the candidates, and that is the best qualification there is for the job."

There you have it: Love, who has never held public office, is asking voters to trust his record as a businessman.

Turns out it's a broken record.

Love and his wife Tina have spent the past three years fighting off IRS attempts to seize their home because they owed more than $200,000 in unpaid federal income tax, according to court records. "The case was settled out of court and the details are not public," says Blain Rethmeier, a senior spokesman for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., which prosecuted the case until its conclusion on November 17, 2003. Rethmeier declined further comment.

Love resolved the tax issue by showing that he had sustained enough losses from the 2001 bankruptcy of a Hooligan's in Miami Lakes to offset what he owed in taxes. Originally the owner of four Hooligan's locations, he has sold all but one.

Love's campaign manager, Brad Nickel, handled damage control when I called for comment. He explained that, indeed, an IRS audit found the Loves owed back taxes. "Jay disputed the amount he owed, and fought them, and in fighting them they put a lien on his house," Nickel said. "They came to an agreement in Jay's favor." Then Nickel crowed: "The IRS misassessed how much he owed. As of right now, the IRS owes him a refund of up towards $100,000."

Later, Nickel e-mailed this statement: "How many people are willing to take on the IRS and win? That is the kind of strength and toughness he will bring to the mayor's office."

When I read the court papers, it didn't look like such a victory.

In its petition to put a lien on Love's $574,000 home on Farmer Road in Palmetto Bay, the IRS noted that by June 1, 1998, the Loves owed $151,934 in federal taxes. In 1999 they failed to pay $121,555 in taxes. Those sums remained substantially unpaid and "as of April 25, 2003, Jay N. and Tina Love remain indebted to the United States in the amount of $240,635.24," the petition stated. The IRS tried to settle the debt "from assets other than the property," but resorted to putting a lien on the house because "no reasonable alternative exists to satisfy the unpaid tax liabilities."

The Loves' lawyer, David Berman, responded that the couple were indeed exploring alternatives to getting kicked out of their house. "The taxpayers have stated a willingness to refinance their home and use the proceeds to satisfy the outstanding liability," Berman wrote, noting that in the course of bringing their tax filings up to date the Loves would show "significant losses" that would "virtually eliminate the tax liability."

That doesn't sound to me like he proved the dastardly IRS agents wrong. It sounds to me like a man desperately trying to rejigger his finances in order to keep from losing his house. (No wonder he's such an advocate for affordable housing.)

What gave Love an out with the government was a business debacle that he maintains wasn't his fault. Love had sold the Miami Lakes Hooligan's, but remained as a guarantor so the new owners could retain the lease. When the restaurant began to fail following a costly dispute with the landlord, Love was forced to take over again in an attempt to salvage it, Nickel said. This plan didn't work. On June 29, 2001, Hooligan's Pub and Lobster House filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Love used that business loss to offset his tax debt, Nickel explained.

Love has made this race less predictable, and that's good. He vehemently refuses to take lobbyist contributions, and seems to sincerely care about things like the state of our public schools and promoting affordable homeownership. His plainspoken comments are refreshing amid candidates who dance around hot topics such as the Cuban embargo. This year he's been working hard to hoist himself above the second-tier candidates into the ranks of the viable: county Commissioner Jimmy Morales, media businessman José Cancela, lawyer and former county Commissioner Diaz de la Portilla, and former Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez, who have all raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Love is hitting every debate and two-bit chicken dinner in town. Although he has only raised $62,000 to date, he should qualify soon for about $300,000 in public financing, which he says gives him a shot at the crown.

And it's true other politicians have endured business tribulations -- Cancela's Radio Unica suffered significant debt, and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz is part owner of a restaurant that owes back taxes to the city he governs.

But the implications here are obvious. The man is asking us to put him at the helm of a $3.6 billion budget based on nothing but his ideas and a track record running his own business. Skirting taxes by claiming losses on a failed business may be a deft financial move, but it doesn't qualify him for the county's top seat.

If Love truly wants to see his ideas for government come to fruition, he should consider dropping out of the race and throwing his machinery behind a candidate he likes -- ideally someone who's on good terms with the IRS.


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