Trouble in Paradise
For a quarter-century, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs ruled the clubby equestrian scene in Wellington, Florida. From his palatial estate, he fought to keep the exclusive community exactly the way he and his family wanted it. Then a brash Boston entrepreneur named Mark Bellissimo appeared on the scene. Now the two men have declared war on each other—and the fate of the town hangs in the balance.
Five days before the election, Al Paglia, one of the pro-Bellissimo candidates, had his house broken into. A burglar smashed through his back door and made off with about $2,500 worth of jewelry. “Very coincidental that two people got broken into,” Paglia said, referencing what happened to Hostetler. “I don’t want to speculate. I don’t think they would stoop to that level.”
The Jacobses denied any connection to the break-ins, and there’s no evidence to suggest any. But I did ask Lou if he has any regrets over the effects of his family’s political spending. “None of us wants to come down here and pick a fight,” he said. “No one wants to fight over this stuff. But if we don’t, who is going to? If we don’t, what’s at risk? So do I wish it never happened? Of course I do. I wish [Bellissimo] had never made the proposal. I wish he’d never chosen that particular site for Wellington’s largest commercial complex. I wish it had never gotten into this contentious situation. Would I do it all over again? Absolutely.”
Election day arrived on March 13, 2012. This being Palm Beach County, everything got screwed up. The initial reports were that Bob Margolis had defeated Bowen in a landslide, and that Hostetler and Paglia had won. The results seemed off, and everyone lawyered up. Per local custom, there was a hand re-count. Finally, at the end of March, the entire Jacobs slate was officially declared victorious. Bowen lost by just 70 votes out of 5,824 ballots cast. With a turnout that low, it seems likely that the Jacobs money had an impact. “Everybody knows now that you can buy the town,” Hostetler told me. “You can buy a vote.”
Even with the results, Bellissimo planned to move ahead with the commercial elements of his project. He was already holding dressage competitions at the site, and the reviews had been good. But then he made a simple but very costly mistake. On March 31, he missed a deadline to complete what’s called a plat of the property—a survey, in effect. He insists that the village lawyer had told him the deadline wasn’t firm, but, in any case, he now had to go answer to the village council—a council that was now very different than the one that had first approved the project.
“He blew it,” Lou Jacobs told me. “He gave us another bite of the apple.”
When Bellissimo appeared before the village council on May 22, his allies were out, and the Jacobs-supported candidates were in. Knowing this, he’d announced the week before that he was taking the planned hotel off the table, at least for the time being.
The council had a choice. It could either grant Bellissimo a fairly routine extension on the plat, or it could revoke the entire approval of his master plan. With the Jacobs-backed faction in the majority, the board voted 3–2 to kill the project. The unbuilt hotel and commercial elements were dead. Then in July, the council voted 3–2 to shut down the dressage operations, too (though it later allowed them to remain open through the end of the current season, which concludes this month). Starting next month, the brand-new complex stands to be a very fancy white elephant. “This was a personal, vindictive action,” Bellissimo told me.
Mayor Bob Margolis and the councilors John Greene and Matt Willhite steadfastly maintain that their votes were unaffected by the support they received from Jacobs. Citing litigation against Wellington, Margolis initially declined to speak with me. The mayor later changed his mind, agreeing to be interviewed as long as he had a village lawyer present. We all met in the office conference room of Mason Phelps, the Jacobs spokesman.
“If Mr. Bellissimo had platted the property in a timely manner,” Margolis told me, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. I am a process-oriented man.” Margolis acknowledged, though, that he couldn’t think of another example of a business’s having its permits revoked for missing a routine deadline.
Margolis insisted that he’d opposed Bellissimo’s project before the Jacobses began backing his candidacy. “I’ve met Jeremy Jacobs and his family three times in my entire life,” he said. When I asked Margolis why we were meeting in the offices of a Jacobs family spokesman, he replied that the village offices were closed for the weekend. There were certainly other options, I noted, adding that our current location might give the wrong impression. “I don’t think it looks bad,” he said. “It doesn’t look bad at all.”
As we spoke, Margolis was embroiled in a controversy of his own. The day before voting to revoke Bellissimo’s master plan, in May, he’d deposited a $2,500 check into a legal-defense fund set up in the aftermath of the election. The check came from Neil Hirsch, a businessman who served as director of the Jacobs group, the Equestrian Preservation Alliance. In July, Margolis also received a $4,000 donation from Victoria McCullough, a Jacobs ally whose lawyer had lobbied the council in May. In Florida, elected officials are not supposed to take more than $100 from lobbying interests, but Margolis argued that, in the case of the money from McCullough, he’d originally accepted the check from her in March, before he took office and before she was officially lobbying—but that he’d lost the check. The new one, he said, was merely a replacement. The Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics has cleared him on that count and he agreed to return the money. The commission would not comment, though, on whether it was still investigating the Hirsch donation. Bellissimo said that he’s filed an additional ethics complaint asking for renewed scrutiny of the contributions.
Another Jacobs-supported council member, John Greene, had a similar problem. He’d also accepted a $4,000 check for his legal-defense fund from McCullough in March and, just like Margolis, was cleared. Greene’s dealings with Hirsch also raised questions. On June 9, in need of temporary housing, Greene moved in with Hirsch, an old friend. The Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics later found that Hirsch had given Greene nearly $3,000 worth of housing, more than $3,000 toward a vacation, and $450 that was used for a Boys & Girls Club gala. All of that would have broken ethics rules, except that the day before Greene moved in, Hirsch had sent a one-sentence resignation email to the Preservation Alliance. That was just over a month before the final vote to revoke Bellissimo’s permit. Again, Bellissimo says he’s filed a separate complaint, but the Palm Beach ethics commission has cleared Greene of the Hirsch-related charges, too.