I tuned in right when Pinellas County school board member Linda Lerner asked Mayor Foster about the city's relationship with local developer and music impresario Bill Edwards, who has become a sort of patron saint to the city in recent years with his private investments in a number of city projects, including trying to redevelop the moribund BayWalk shopping complex downtown.
Last month the Federal Trade Commission placed a $7.5 million fine on the Edwards-owned Mortgage Investors Corp,, the largest ever for a violation of the "Do Not Call" telemarketing rule. Mortgage Investors Corp. is one of the country's biggest refinancers of vets' home loans.
The FTC alleges that Mortgage Investors called more than 5.4 million phone numbers listed on the National Do Not Call Registry to pitch home loan refinancing services to current and former members of the U.S. military. And the FTC alleges that Mortgage Investors misled consumers about a corporate affiliation with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In April of 2011, the City of St. Pete chose Edwards' company to take over the Mahaffey Theater. Lerner asked the candidates, in retrospect, if there is any regret and how did the decision play into the idea of ethics in government?
Rick Kriseman responded first, "Obviously, anybody the city does business with, it's our obligation to look at their ethics. It's clearly problematic to be doing business with someone whom has unethical behavior, certainly in the way they deal with our citizens of this community, and it does give concern. If you're going to do business with St. Petersburg, how you treat our citizens, we're going to look at that, and we're going to take that into consideration in determining whether we're going to give you an opportunity to earn our taxpayer dollars. Because the last thing we should be doing is giving taxpayer dollars to someone who is turning around and acting in an unethical manner towards those same people who are contributing to those same dollars that they're receiving."
Foster said he would be lying if he didn't say it wouldn't have been a factor if Mortgage Investors had been accused of such conduct before the city made a deal with Edwards. He said the legal process would play out, but added, "The Mahaffey contract is being handled by a different corporation. It's not Mortgage Investors Corp. (it's Big 3 Entertainment).
The mayor added, "Bill Edwards has been an incredible philanthropist and giver to this community. I'm not going to stand here and bash somebody who has given so much to the community and who quite frankly has turned around the Mahaffey Theater and programming, and invested his own money in making sure that A) it's successful, and B) that we reduce our subsidy."