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The Truth Behind W.D., Willie & the Soccer Complex
In his garage, Joe Elliott counts 45 boxes full of paper. It's court transcripts, depositions, Escambia County board meeting records, letters, deeds, receipts, his notes and other records related to the county's now infamous $6.2 million purchase of the abandoned soccer complex and former Stalnaker car dealership.
Jurors cleared Elliott, a real estate agent, in December 2002 and his wife, Georgann, a real estate broker, in April 2004 of any wrongdoing in the Escambia County commission land deals.
"My garage is so cluttered," he says sheepishly. "You don't know how many nights I've stayed up studying all this. I can handle it but I don't like my family going through all of it."
"This whole thing was political all along," says Elliott, who has battled a bone marrow cancer since 1998 and just celebrated his 61st birthday. He regularly receives treatment for his cancer in Little Rock at The Arkansas Cancer Research Center. "There wasn't any backdoor deal. There weren't any bribes. But nobody would listen. The state attorney wouldn't."
State prosecutors failed to prove the Elliotts paid former Escambia County Commissioner Willie Junior a $10,000 bribe the night before the board voted Nov. 1, 2001, to purchase the abandoned Pensacola Soccer Complex for $3.9 million.
Elliott admits Junior asked him for a loan. He says Junior even asked him to help sell his funeral home once but came back later and told him Childers was helping out, instead.
"He asked me for four different favors and I never responded," the soft-spoken Elliott says calmly. "When I told him I couldn't do it. He would just laugh about it."
And W.D. Childers? He says the former board chairman and Florida Senate dean is innocent and never received $100,000 for himself and $100,000 for Junior for the county buying the soccer complex. Elliott would have testified to it in court, if he had been called.
Childers' appeal of his April 2003 conviction on bribery and unlawful compensation and 3½-year prison sentence are pending.
"Mr. Childers never bribed," he says. "There was no collard green pot with money. The only one there was was the one the state took (Junior) out and bought."
Elliott came forward recently to tell his untold story, after the news that Moulton Properties Inc. sold 65 acres, which includes the soccer complex site, for $15 million to Gulf Power. The Escambia County commission approved the sale of the 48-acre soccer site for $2.9 million to Moulton in February 2003.
It's a sale that doesn't surprise Elliott, who helped bring the first Walmart and Super Walmart to the area and was behind developments around exit 7 off Interstate 10 around the intersection of Pine Forest Road.
It's a sale that Elliott believes further shows his innocence and vindicates his assertion that his original proposal was a good deal for the county.
It's a sale that makes him wonder again, why then-county officials were in such a hurry to sell it off at a $1.1 million loss?
"There are no tracts that size in the central part of the county," he says. "The county lost a lot of money unloading that property at the time. I can't do any name calling, but I never thought it was a good decision."
Rodger Lowery, a property appraiser for 17 years, agrees with Elliott, after being vilified for his $4 million value of the property for Elliott in October 2001. The county's appraiser, Charles Sherill, who's known for conservative appraisals, valued the same site a few weeks earlier at $3.8 million.
Gregg Beck, who earned $162,500 for representing the county on the soccer complex and car lot sales, called the appraisals "not honest or fair or objective," and asserted that the appraisers "just did some sorry work."
The county's sale of the soccer complex came after John Hufford gave the county a $2.45 million appraisal, citing little growth in the area at the time, severely damaged buildings and the property not being up to code among other reasons.
In questioning by the State Attorney's Office the day of the county's vote Feb. 6, 2003 to unload the site, Beck defended himself.
Although he told prosecutors he calculated the soccer site was worth $2.4 million and the car lot was worth $1.6 million, he maintained he had nothing to do with Hufford's selection, saying, "I didn't pick the man."
Beck, who heads Beck Property Company, added: "And my company, nor me, have any interest in buying either one of them and never have had."
In fact, Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones admitted to state prosecutors in a March 7, 2002 sworn statement that when asked about the site's value, "I said something flip, like I don't think you can get it there, if you stacked a million dollars on it." But when pressed by State Attorney Curtis Golden and Investigator Allen Cotton whether he would say the property was worth $2.5 million, Jones refused to render a price without a thorough appraisal. "I don't want my license jerked," he told them.
Lowery wrote in a Feb. 1, 2003 letter published by the daily paper—which also questioned in a Feb. 12, 2003 headline, "Will land deal prove to be a good deal?"—that "if Gregg Beck can convince Escambia County to sell this property for the reported value of $2.45 million, I would like to be first in line to start the negotiations to buy it at that price."
In fact, Lowery says he contacted land developer Jim Moulton about buying the soccer complex as soon as he heard of the low appraisal at the end of January. He and others credit Moulton for making a savvy business deal.
He points out three years later, the price per acre on the property jumped 184 percent. Lowery does admit, though, that Moulton increased the value by buying about 17 acres around the soccer complex to increase the frontage on U.S. Highway 29 and improve access to Old Palafox Highway.
"The citizens of this county lost out," he says. "The county could have done that too, but they chose not to. There oughta be an investigation into who pulled the trigger and why they sold it that quick."
Lowery points out his appraisal analyzed five large land sales, including the old Mariner Mall, the Walmart in Pace, the Lowe's in Gulf Breeze, the Baptist Health Care Center on Nine Mile Road and the Walmart in Gulf Breeze. Prices ranged from $1.38 a square foot for the 24.6-acre Pace Walmart site to $2.77 a square foot for the 31.5-acre Mariner Mall location.
His $4 million appraisal of the soccer complex equaled $1.90 per square foot. Meanwhile, Hufford's $2.45 million appraisal came to $1.16 per square foot.
"I must have been right," Lowery says.
Childers maintained from the start that the property was a good investment for the county. He told the Independent News in a Jan. 25, 2002 cover story that first surfaced questions about the deal, "We made a good buy. Nothing we bought since I've been here are things we can't turn around and make a profit on. We really bought some crap over the years. We're trying to make amends for it.
"You'll always have whiners, criers and squawkers. They couldn't balance their checkbooks, if you held it up for them," he added. "They wanted to make money off it and got pissed when they didn't."
But county commissioners approved the Moulton deal for $2.9 million. Mobile-based O'Brien and Associates was offering $1.6 million.
The sale came despite Escambia County Administrator George Touart vowing the county would not sell the land for $2.45 million and would consider building a "one-stop" county office complex there.
Commissioners Tom Banjanin, Cliff Barnhart, Bill Dickson, Janice Gilley and Marie Young used words like unacceptable, disappointing and sick to describe the $2.45 million appraisal.
County observers speculate that commissioners just wanted to put the scandal behind them, county officials were pressured by developers, rival development proposals existed or the State Attorney's Office pressed for the sale to bolster their case against Childers, among other theories.
Jim Moulton, of Moulton Properties whose family business has operated in the area for nearly 75 years, says he wished he had bought the property in the 1970s when he had a chance and didn't. He points out he assembled 17 more properties around the soccer complex, since the county accepted his offer in February 2003. Gulf Power plans to build a storm center at the location.
"I'm not smart, I just work hard," he says. "There's no indication that anybody did anything other than a wise business deal here for the betterment of the community."
A testy Moulton refuses to get into debate on whether the county acted prudently or on the conflicting values the county received on the site.
"We've been here long time and any suggestion we took advantage of the county would be unappreciated. We took a business risk," he says. "It was there. It was a good opportunity to buy it and we bought it. People don't pressure me and I don't pressure people."
Elliott says he first thought of making an offer to the county in 1998, when he was sitting at the light at the corner of Beverly Parkway and W Street. He recalls thinking the Brent Park ballfields were dangerous for the children with such heavy traffic running through it.
As proof, Elliott hands over an August 1999 fax responding to his request for county property records on the Brent Park ballfields. He says he had previously met with then-commissioner Wilson Robertson about his idea in 1998 but his cancer treatment kept him from putting the deal together. He also says around that time one developer he talked to offered $6 million for the soccer complex site.
Elliott also shows his research on Brent Park that details its history from Dec. 16, 1925 when 50 acres were originally dedicated to the county to be used as a golf course and recreational area. Escambia County eventually used 33.6 acres for a clay pit and cut a road through it.
He arranged to meet with Childers in June 2001 to sell the abandoned soccer site to the county for the ballfields used by the Brent Recreation Association. He says he then planned to use Brent Park for commecial use and says a major grocery store chain showed interest.
He says the meeting with Childers didn't last long, because Childers considered it a District 3 project and sent Elliott to see Junior, saying he didn't get involved in other people's districts.
"I showed how the county could recoup its money," Elliott recalls. "It didn't happen overnight. I had done my research for five years. I didn't care if it took another two years."
Elliott bought the complex from a bank for $3.3 million, then sold it to the county for $3.9 million after the Nov. 1, 2001 approval by the county commission. He netted a profit of about $561,000.
But the deal eventually crumbled under allegations of a "last-minute" add-on to the county's agenda and bribery.
Looking relaxed sitting in an arm chair in his attorney Leo Thomas's office, Elliott scoffs at the charges. He and Thomas show county documents revealing Junior asked the clerk to put the sale on the agenda at 1 p.m. the day before the meeting and before six other add-ons submitted by other commissioners.
He laughs at Junior's ever-changing testimony. He points out, for instance, in Junior's original statement June 15, 2002 to the State Attorney's Office that Junior says he received the $10,000 bribe a week before the vote, the latter part of October, mid-October and finally says he's not sure about the date.
Prosecutors wanted to maintain he received the bribe Oct. 31, 2001 to coincide with a withdrawl by Georgann Elliott. Even at her trial, Junior testified he didn't get the money Oct. 31. Elliott and Junior met at the soccer complex in October but to go over stormwater runoff, Elliott says.
"That blew their case out of the water," Thomas says, chuckling.
And bribe or no bribe, Junior told investigators, "I thought it was a worthwhile project. I would've voted for it regardless."
Recently, a judge dropped the charges against Junior, who committed suicide in 2004. Junior had pleaded no contest to 11 charges of bribery, extortion, grand theft and other charges in exchange for no more than 18 months in jail and his testimony against Childers in the corruption case.
Elliott and Thomas maintain the State Attorney's Office and the trials drove Junior to apparently kill himself in December 2004 by crawling under a friend's house and drinking anti-freeze.
"I'm sitting here somewhat on trial myself," Junior admitted during Georgann's trial.
Thomas says, "Poor guy. It was pathetic. He was on trial. They won. They killed him."
Elliott says he voluntarily went to the State Attorney's Office in February 2002, a day before Golden ordered a grand jury investigation. He offered them all his records because "I didn't know I needed a lawyer. I didn't think I did anything wrong."
He says he's convinced Childers isn't guilty of anything either, and disputes they were good friends as widely reported.
Elliott says his only deal with Childers came in the 1970s when he bought the Catfish Corner diner from Childers but he says he never talked to Childers and worked with Childers' cousin. The diner used to sit at the site on Michigan Avenue where Childers established his local headquarters.
"That's their close connection," Thomas scoffs.
"I never talked to W.D.," Elliott adds. "I didn't know him well."
Childers testified in his trial that he didn't consider Elliott a buddy but said they weren't "non-friends."
Meanwhile, Elliott says he thinks the truth about why the soccer complex and Brent Park deal was derailed lies in his 45 boxes and he plans to keep digging.
"The truth about it," he says. "I don't know, yet."
Soccer Complex Scandal Timeline
June 2001: Local developer Joe Elliott meets with Escambia County Commission Chairman W.D. Childers and Commissioner Willie Junior separately to discuss the old Pensacola Soccer Complex and Brent Park ballfields.
Oct. 4: Escambia County Commission agenda, Commissioner Willie Junior proposes negotiating a purchase price for the old Pensacola Soccer Complex. Motion is approved unanimously.
Nov. 1: Commissioners vote 3-2 to purchase the soccer complex for $3.9 million from Elliott. Commissioners Mike Bass, W.D. Childers and Junior vote yes, while Tom Banjanin and Terry Smith vote no.
Nov. 20: Escambia County buys the soccer complex.
Feb. 7, 2002: State Attorney Curtis Golden announces a grand jury investigation into possible corruption in Escambia County government.
March 25: State grand jury investigating the commission returns five sealed indictments.
March 29: Childers reveals that he wrote Junior $90,000 in checks between May 31, 2001, and Feb. 21, 2002. He says they were loans and denies they were to get Junior to approve proposal on soccer complex.
April 30: Junior, Bass, Childers and Smith are booked at the Escambia County Jail on charges ranging from racketeering and bribery to violating the state's Sunshine Law on open meetings. Also charged are Pensacola real estate developer Joe Elliott and his wife, Georgann Elliott. He is charged with racketeering, bribery and money laundering. She is charged with failing to properly report financial transactions.
May 1: Gov. Jeb Bush suspends the indicted commissioners.
June 16: Junior strikes a deal with state prosecutors, agreeing to plead guilty on 11 charges, including 10 felonies, and cooperate with the continuing grand jury investigation of county government in exchange for his testimony and no more than 18 months in prison.
June 17: Hours after Junior brokers a deal with prosecutors, Childers is charged with money laundering and bribery. He is immediately released from the Escambia County Jail on $50,000 bond.
June 20: Circuit Judge Thomas T. Remington declares a mistrial in Georgann Elliott's trial when jurors cannot reach a decision.
June 28: Childers is found guilty of one count of violating the state Sunshine Law.
July 20: Smith is convicted on two counts of violating the Sunshine Law.
Aug. 13: Bass makes a deal with prosecutors, winning exoneration on four felony charges and immunity from further prosecution while pleading no contest to two misdemeanor Sunshine Law violations.
Sept. 17: Junior pleads no contest to 10 felonies and one misdemeanor charge relating to misdeeds committed while he was commissioner.
Sept. 18: Smith is sentenced to 250 hours of community service and ordered to pay $4,987 in fines and court costs for violating the Sunshine Law.
Oct. 7: Childers pleads no contest to a charge he violated the Sunshine Law by discussing a county contract in front of two other commissioners.
Oct. 8: The grand jury investigating Escambia County government issues a six-page report. It recommends 10 steps to establish more restrictions on spending, hiring and last-minute decision making, including the elimination of all add-on items to the commission agenda.
Nov. 12: Georgann Elliott's second trial is delayed while prosecutors appeal a pretrial ruling. She is charged with principal to bribery, money laundering and structuring financial transactions to evade reporting requirements.
Dec. 6: Jury finds Joe Elliott not guilty on charges of bribery, racketeering and money laundering.
Feb. 4, 2003: Willie Junior is found unconscious in his East Fisher Street home and admitted to Sacred Heart Hospital from apparently taking a combination of medicines.
Feb. 6: The Escambia County commission approves the sale of the 48-acre soccer site for $2.9 million to Moulton Properties Inc.
April 10: Childers is found guilty of bribery and unlawful compensation by a Crestview jury.
June: Childers is sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison. He remains out of jail on appeal.
April 30, 2004: An Okaloosa County jury acquits Georgann Elliott of money laundering and principal to bribery charges.
Dec. 9: Junior's body is found in the crawl space under the East Strong Street home of Benjamin Dudley. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andi Minyard later rules Junior took his own life by drinking antifreeze.
February 2006: Childers' bribery and unlawful compensation convictions were upheld by the 1st District Court of Appeal. He asked the court to review its decision and the request is pending.
April 25: Moulton Properties Inc. sells Gulf Power 65 acres of mostly vacant property for $15 million, which includes the 48-acre soccer complex near the intersection of Pensacola Boulevard and W Street.
May 5: An Okaloosa judge dropped bribery, extortion, grand theft and other charges against Junior.
What's a fair price for soccer complex?
Moulton Properties Inc. recently sold 65 acres, which includes the 48-acre abandoned soccer complex site, to Gulf Power for $15 million. The sale seems to vindicate former Escambia County Commission Chairman W.D. Childers and others accused of wrongdoing stemming from the county's $3.9 million purchase from Joe Elliott on Nov. 1, 2001. And it reopens old debates on the property's value. The county approved a $2.92 million sale to Moulton in February 2003, a few weeks after John Hufford appraised it for the county at $2.45 million. Charles Sherill had valued the site at $3.8 million for the county in October 2001, while Rodger Lowery put the price at $4 million during the same time for Elliott. Following are five sales Lowery based his appraisal on.
Old Mariner Mall, January 2000, 31.5 acres, $3.8 million, $120,635 per acre, $2.77 per square foot
Walmart in Pace, September 1999, 24.6 acres, $1.48 million, $60,195 per acre, $1.38 per square foot
Lowe's in Gulf Breeze, February 1999, 22.5 acres, $2.14 million, $95,111 per acre, $2.18 per square foot
Baptist Health Care Center at Nine Mile Road, July 1997, 28.5 acres, $1.92 million, $67,456 per acre, $1.55 per square foot
Walmart in Gulf Breeze, February 1997, 23.5 acres, $2.42 million, $103,021 per acre, $2.37 per square foot
Lowery appraisal: $83,333 per acre, $1.91 per square foot
Sherill appraisal: $79,166 per acre, $1.82 per square foot
Hufford appraisal: $51,041 per acre, $1.17 per square foot
Moulton 65-acre sale: $230,769 per acre, $5.29 per square foot
Curious about W.D. Childers, Willie Junior and the soccer complex? Here's past cover stories from the Independent News on Escambia County commissioners and their land deals.