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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Lawsuit focused on Crist support by company board

TALLAHASSEE — Information about St. Joe Co. board members’ past political support of former Gov. Charlie Crist wasn’t disclosed when he was nominated to serve on the company’s board.

That information irked some company shareholders, according to a now-dismissed federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit didn’t focus on Crist, but instead alleged board members made “false and/or misleading” statements about Florida’s declining real estate market that cost the company “hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.”

St. Joe is one of Florida’s largest land owners.

The suit was filed in September 2011 by shareholder David Shurkin and focused on a period between August 2009 and July 2011. Crist, along with 10 others, was a named defendant. He’s now running for governor as a Democrat.

Crist’s campaign declined comment for this story, pointing to a June interview he did with the Scripps/Tribune Capital Bureau. At that time, Crist said he was brought on to address executive compensation, which was increasing.

The 92-page lawsuit includes claims that Crist’s political ties to board chairman Bruce Berkowitz, then-board member Charlie Fernandez and current member Tom Murphy helped Crist in his bid to secure a spot on the board.

“It was not disclosed that both Fernandez and Berkowitz had previously backed Crist in public office,” the lawsuit stated. “Nor was it disclosed that defendant Murphy had also donated to Crist.”

Berkowitz, who was unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts to reach him, runs Fairholme Capital Management, a mutual fund firm that owns 30 percent of St. Joe’s stock. Crist said during his June interview that Berkowitz knew he “was probably getting ready to run for governor.”

Shurkin was unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts to reach him.

Attorneys listed on the lawsuit reached by the Scripps/Tribune Capital Bureau say they no longer represent those involved.

The three board members listed in the lawsuit have so far given more than $320,000 to a committee supporting Crist’s bid for governor. In 2012, Crist’s compensation was $217,507, including $117,500 in cash. After he left the company in early 2013, the board approved a consulting contract for Crist that ended up being worth $182,993 over seven months.

Crist joined the board at a tumultuous time for the company.

Berkowitz and Fernandez, who were working on a board takeover, forced four board members to leave, including chief executive Britt Greene. Berkowitz then put forward a slate of new board candidates, including Crist.

“Berkowitz and Fernandez attempted to consolidate their control over the board by seeking the nomination of former Florida Governor Charlie Crist to the St. Joe Board,” read the complaint.

In an email filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Berkowitz said Crist was his pick after candidate Rodney Baretto, then-chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, couldn’t be considered because he did work for the company that would “prevent him from being considered an independent director.”

“Accordingly, Charlie (Fernandez) and I propose Governor Charlie Crist, who is well known to all of you,” the email continued.

Shurkin filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss his lawsuit in April 2013 after a separate federal judge tossed a shareholder lawsuit that made similar allegations against company board members. It was filed before Crist joined the board.

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