Past the restaurants and ritz of Beach Drive Northeast came a score of the outspoken from Occupy St. Petersburg, bearing signs and marching in silence through the darkness of Sunday evening. A few passersby shouted in solidarity – some withdrew cameras for snapshots.
Down at North Straub Park was Chillounge, the charitable night of fashion, cash bars, cigars, and wooden furniture for the benefit of Creative Clay and The Woodson Museum. Occupy Saint Petersburg had mobilized to publically question the ethics and affairs of local businessman, Bill Edwards, whose ubiquitous presence in Saint Petersburg is apparent as owner of Baywalk, multiple entertainment companies, and as the recently chosen operator and investor of the Mahaffey Theatre.
But the motivations of the Occupy movement are independent of this. The rally outside the gates of Chillounge was conceived when Mortgage Investors Corporation – of which Bill Edwards is Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President – was included with Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and other banks and mortgage companies in a whistleblower lawsuit filed under the False Claims Act.
Since it was originally filed in 2006 in Atlanta, Georgia, the legal teams who have taken the case (Phillips & Cohen LLP; Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer LLP; Wilbanks & Bridges LLP) assert military veterans and the general public have been misled and exploited at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars by illicit fees that were consciously hidden in home mortgage refinancing transactions.
Ariel Fernandez, a regular face and voice in Occupy rallies of Tampa Bay, ruminated on Edwards and his reputation as a philanthropist.
“Although a member of the community might be able to give back to the community in monetary amounts and throw a good party, it still doesn’t make them a positive contributor of the community because if you have make that money through nefarious means, and those nefarious means are making millions, if not billions of dollars, off the backs of veterans through adjusted rate mortgages.”
Facilitator and organizer Maria Jose elaborated that Occupy is in no way opposed to the altruistic spirit of the event, but that the public persona Edwards is known for is a guise for something far worse. For Occupy St. Pete, the demonstration was a gesture to the community, an invocation of dialogue.
“He has so much influence over politics, I mean, this is the one percent that we’re up against,” she said of Edwards. “And this is what we’re striving to say – it shouldn’t be just a powerful person like that should have so much influence in the community, everybody in the community should have influence.”
Jose explained that the plan to demonstrate was originally unintended, but became further solidified when the St. Petersburg Police Department contacted a liaison of Occupy St. Pete in the middle of the night, seeking information on the groups’ impending activity. Ambition was only amplified when the wife of Bill Edwards was said to have denounced their possible presence at Chillounge when in conversation at a beauty salon.
It would be the first action for Dean Dunia, a student of 19 studying at Saint Petersburg College. At Williams Park, he had listened in on the General Assembly and spun poi in betwixt dialogue.
Dunia worries that public ignorance will provide a safeguard for nefarious activities, those of Edwards included.
“The fact that he’s doing charity and stuff, it’s a good thing, but, if anything, it’s him trying to cover up the fact that all those other millions of dollars that they’re using are not…you know…basically, it’s just one big sham,” he said. “They’re appeasing all these people so later on they don’t have to worry about it.”
At the General Assembly, held in the heart of Williams Park, the group had voted on whether or not to go forward with the action. Some feared misrepresentation in the media, others were concerned with numbers.
Lenny Flank saw the debate prior to the demonstration as an example of the General Assembly’s success.
“It’s caused a bit of dissension, which always happens – it’s a wide-ranging group. We have a lot of different people with different viewpoints. They’re inevitably going to be clashes,” he said. “We resolve them through consensus, we resolve them through ourselves. Everyone’s still here. We haven’t made enemies of each other.”
With his 51st birthday approaching in months, Flank has experienced what public perception can do in his experiences working with Greenpeace and Industrial Workers of the World.
Occupy Wall Street and its subsequent chapters, like any movement or initiative that relies on public support and spirit before funds and finances, lives or dies by the perception of the world around it – like his peers, Flank knows this.
“With public opinion we can do everything, without it, we can’t do anything. I was just afraid that the headlines we’d see tomorrow were ‘Occupy disrupts charity event,’ which doesn’t help us at all.”
Originally, Occupy St. Petersburg planned to mic check from both outside and from within the Chillounge event – logistics and consideration changed the game, and a mic check happened from the grass near the entrance of the event, where the Occupiers denounced Edwards’ public reputation and urged those listening to research his actions as the head of Mortgage Investors Corporation.
“If the guy himself (Bill Edwards) were here speaking, he’s fair game,” Flank said. “If he’s up there talking, we go in, we mic check him, we interrupt, we do whatever we need to. But, he’s not. All we’d be doing now is interrupting the band, who has nothing to do with any of this. We have to be very, very clear about who the target is and especially clear about who the target is not.”
Flank is confident the public will come to understand the message.
“The word will get out. The guy will get his black eye,” he said.
When Occupy St. Pete gathered and spoke to the crowd outside of Chillounge, a husband and wife – who later identified themselves as “Jeff” and “Sally” after refusing to provide their names, though explaining they had flown in from Wisconsin for vacation – approached and began jeering and dismissing the group. After the confrontation, they would both approach observing St. Petersburg Police Department officer Slobodan Juric.
“Do they even have the right to stand on taxpayers’ property and yell at us?” Sally asked Officer Juric.
“Unfortunately, they do.” Juric replied.
Sally shouted at Officer Juric, demanding he “do his job.”
“They’re a bunch of slugs!” Jeff would tell Officer Juric and me. “They’re screaming in my face. They’re spitting in my leftovers! St. Petersburg is really gonna profit by having that slug talking like that.”
Jeff would explain his contention with Occupy St. Pete and Occupy abroad.
“Shame on them,” he said. “What do they wanna do, shut everything down so everybody’s out of work?”
When asked what he thinks the Occupy movement’s intentions are, he cited a familiar talking point of those against it.
“I dunno, because they dunno. They don’t know what their intentions are,” he said.
“They’ve ruined our capital and they’ve shut down Wall Street,” Sally said before leaving.
Officer Slobodan Juric, after explaining why he does not shake hands, offered a fleeting glimpse at why he had labeled the ability of the Occupy protesters to demonstrate “unfortunate.”
“When someone wants something done, if they don’t get the result, obviously then it’s unfortunate. That’s all. I’m not gonna make any further comment,” Juric stated.
What does this mean for the longevity of Bill Edwards’ reputation? The possibilities are myriad and boundless, but the information is seemingly available for those who wish to know.
Ariel Fernandez believes so.
“It’s all there in plain sight,” he said. “We just choose not to look at it.”
Further information on the case involving Bill Edwards and Mortgage Investors Corporation can be found at the site created by the legal teams pursuing the lawsuit: http://www.vamortgagefraud.com/