Thirty-somethings in rhinestones and heels sipped $10 cocktails as they maneuvered Straub Park Saturday during the fourth annual Chillounge. Amid live music, cigar-rolling, fashion shows, an outdoor cocktail bar and fireworks, rumors swirled that Occupy St. Pete might show up. And they did: About 15-20 people marched quietly down Beach Blvd., signs in hand, in a silent protest that targeted local mogul Bill Edwards.
Edwards has been much in the news of late. St. Pete City Council awarded him the contract to manage the Mahaffey Theatre, which re-opened with much hoopla on the same weekend as the Chillounge event. Edwards' recent purchase of the beleaguered Baywalk complex has also brought him new attention. But the protesters on Saturday were more interested in Edwards' Mortgage Investors Corporation, which deals in refinancing for veterans.
With "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" playing in the background, Occupy St. Pete members talked to partygoers and passersby on the sidewalks outside the event.
They handed out small flyers with this message:
"Your host, Bill Edwards, holds profit over people. His company, Mortgage Investors Corp., has made $4 billion selling Adjustable Rate Mortgages to veterans. That company was just sued along with major national banks for cheating taxpayers and veterans out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Mr. Edwards tries to hide behind a facade of community service and development. However, it takes more than donations to charity to make a person charitable. We want everyone here, and Mr. Edwards to know that the whole world is watching. We are the 99%."
Mortgage Investors Corporation is among several major financial institutions named in a whistleblower lawsuit, recently unsealed in federal court in Atlanta, that alleges the firms were charging illegal fees on mortgages for retired or active-duty veterans trying to refinance their homes.
The Washington Post reported in October: "The two mortgage brokers who brought the suit said in an interview that they were instructed by the lenders not to show attorney’s fees on their estimates, but to add them to the title examination fee. Under VA rules, lenders can charge veterans for recording fees and taxes, credit reports and other customary fees, but they are not allowed to charge attorney’s fees or settlement closing fees."
"It's one thing to be philanthropic," said Occupy St. Pete facilitator Maria Jose Hays. "It's another to hide behind it. Edwards owns all of downtown; this is the 1 percent."
Occupy St. Pete decided earlier at their general assembly that the protest would be silent "because we are in support of the charities being supported tonight," Hays said. "We want to have a dialogue with the community."
Organizers at Chillounge approached law enforcement with the hopes of removing Occupy St. Pete from the park. But no laws were violated, so the protesters remained.
"I hear it, I know what's going on," one officer told a frenzied Chillounge organizer.
Dialogues ensued between the public and Occupy.
Ariel Fernandez stood alongside Occupy with his dog when one man promoting golf club sales approached him, unaware Fernandez was part of the Occupy group.
"They all need to go get jobs," he said.
"Well, a lot of them have jobs. I have a job and I'm with them," Fernandez replied.
"We need to keep the rich rich, and they will build jobs," said the golf club salesman.
"Even if it means fraud?" Fernandez asked.
"Man, we almost went into a depression," said the salesman.
"We're in a depression," Fernandez said. "They aren't any food lines like there were then. There are food stamps now."
"Well, Occupy will never change it. I'm in the golf business and I need the rich guys, I gotta have the rich guys."
"I want to be a rich guy," Fernandez said. "But I want to be moral, too."
Most of the Occupy St. Pete group dispersed after a little while. Those inside probably knew little of what happened outside, and the Chillounge party went on, culminating in a finale of fireworks over the bay.