Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene advertises himself as the rags-to-riches Democratic Florida gubernatorial candidate who knows what it’s like to be the little guy and who’s willing to spend what it takes to help his party win control of Tallahassee.
But beyond his flood of mailers and $25 million TV ad campaign that have rocketed him to third place in the polls, another picture emerges of the businessman as told in lawsuits, liens and press accounts from former employees, contractors and others who did business with the developer.
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Liked by some and loathed by others, the 63-year-old Greene is invariably described as a headstrong micromanager, a self-assured self-made man who doesn’t hesitate to use the courts and his $3.3 billion net worth to get his way.
The list of people involved in lawsuits or liens against Greene over the years runs the gamut — from Hollywood director Ron Howard to the Coca-Cola Company to a former campaign consultant to a slew of local contractors in his home county of Palm Beach. There, court records show, Greene has had at least $1.2 million in lawsuits and liens filed by 14 different contractors and companies against him since his unsuccessful 2010 Senate campaign, after which he sued the Tampa Bay Times for its tough coverage of his business dealings and another story about wild parties on his yacht.
“I’m a fighter. And I’m gonna fight just as much when I become governor. You can be sure. You’re going to see that side of me in Tallahassee. I’m the kind of person who fights and stands up for things,” Greene told POLITICO. “I have a very high standard of right and wrong and ethical standards. … I also don’t just roll over because somebody wants to take advantage of me.”
Greene called the various controversies, especially the construction matters, “little rounding errors of disputes” considering the number of his holdings and business deals. They include $215 million in current development projects from New York to California to West Palm Beach and which employ 165 contractors, a number that could double, his campaign says.
‘A horrible person’
Those who have tussled with Greene seldom comment on the record. Nearly all of his disputes end up with confidential settlements.
Of all the businesses that have been involved in lawsuits or liens with Greene since 2010 — 14 in Palm Beach County and one in Miami-Dade County court — only two spoke on the record with POLITICO, one in favor and one against. Three others criticized Greene, but only on condition of anonymity, with two comparing him to President Donald Trump, a part-time Palm Beach resident who has had a history of disputes with contractors and of threatening to sue reporters.
Robert Sorensen, president of West Palm Beach-based RJS Construction, told POLITICO that he thinks Trump is better than Greene.
“He’s a horrible person. He almost put us out of business,” Sorensen said of Greene.
Sorensen points to three separate liens his company filed in 2014 to collect for work on properties tied to Greene, including a lien on Greene’s historic Palm Beach mansion he bought for $24 million in 2009, the biggest home sale that year in the market. Together, Sorensen’s liens totaled $143,770.45, according to Palm Beach County court records.
All were ultimately settled, Sorensen said, after he hired an attorney. Greene said he doesn’t remember Sorensen at all nor the cases against him. Sorensen’s lawyer did not return calls for comment.
Sorensen said he personally interacted at times with Greene, who was “dangling the carrot” of lots of work — on his home, a Palm Beach condo development where Greene owns the majority of units and a building Greene bought on West Palm Beach’s signature road, Clematis Street.
But then, Sorensen said, Greene started to pay him less than he was owed, a claim that Greene denies.
Greene’s property manager, Charles Parker, told POLITICO via email that he interacted with Sorensen, not Greene. Parker said Sorensen’s condo work was engaged by the condo association when Greene wasn’t a board member. As for the work on the Clematis property, Parker said the payment was initially delayed due to “permitting, inspection approval, and work quality issues.” Sorensen did not return calls for comment concerning Parker’s statements.
“In construction, there are often disputes — it’s a part of the industry. But Jeff Greene pays his vendors, and strives to resolve any issues that arise immediately and fairly,” Parker said. “We pay our bills on time, and we have great relationships with our subcontractors. Sorenson appears to be upset about issues that have nothing to do with Jeff Greene.”
Sorensen disagreed and said he felt the need to speak out because Greene’s campaign ads are giving voters a false impression of his temperament and business style.
“He gets out there saying he’s fighting for the little guy because his dad worked hard and had a heart attack and he cares about Florida workers and they can’t make ends meet. And he’s the biggest two-faced liar I’ve ever run across,” Sorensen said.
“The sad thing is people don’t see that side of it and then you go and vote for somebody like this and it just increases their ego and they think that they’re bulletproof,” Sorensen said. “He’s never been held accountable. He’s got deep pockets. He’s got attorneys. He sues people. He’s not accountable for his actions. That’s the thing that bothers me the most.”
The bulk of the other lawsuits and liens against Greene since 2010 stemmed from a general-contractor controversy concerning work at his Palm Beach mansion, where Sorensen said he worked alongside some of the 10 firms that Greene identified as being linked to the general-contractor dispute. All refused to comment on the record, along with their lawyers.
Greene faulted the general contractor for allowing un-approved remodeling that resulted in as much as $985,000 in disputed expenses, according to various liens and lawsuits filed by the contractors. Greene balked. The general contractor refused comment.
“I’m very micromanaging. I keep track. I make sure that in every contract it says only I personally can approve change orders,” Greene said, adding that despite “all this extra work” that got “a little out of control,” the cases got settled.
“This is what happens in construction,” Greene said, stressing that he has a policy of paying bills on time.
As a billionaire, Greene sounds acutely aware that his money is a strength but also makes him a target. In one case, he fought a $60,000 claim from Coca-Cola Company over unpaid deliveries to a convenience store he owned. Greene said the company was of the misimpression it had a personal guarantee for deliveries.
“Who with my net worth would ever go sign an unlimited guarantee for something?” Greene said, describing himself as “collectible” due to his vast wealth. The case was settled in February, five years after the soda company sued. A lawyer from Coca-Cola would not discuss the suit.
Some contractors, however, appreciated working with Greene.
Johanna Lixey, president of Transcrete Services in Orlando, told POLITICO she “had a very favorable experience” installing flooring at The Greene School, a private elementary that was founded and funded by Greene in West Palm Beach. She said a $29,500 lien her company filed against the school “was a misunderstanding. … Filing such a document is protocol in this industry. We were paid in full.”
Would she vote for him for governor?
“I believe it’s best to never discuss religion or politics :)” she replied by email.
Most contractors involved in liens and lawsuits with Greene said nothing, at least not on the record because they said they feared reprisal from Greene.
“He’s just like Trump,” a contractor groused, claiming he had to pay so much in attorney’s fees that the job was barely profitable.
Greene bristles at the comparison to Trump and contrasts his creation of the private Greene School, where he said he and his wife have invested $20 million since 2016, with the scandal-plagued and now-defunct Trump University.
And as for his record, Greene said, “I built, I don’t know, a hundred properties over the years. So each one of them could have 100 different tradesmen. That could be 10,000 different contracts. … If somebody wants to say that ‘Jeff’s had 10,000 contracts and had a problem with nine of them,’ I’d say that’s a pretty respectable record.”
Also, Greene said that he and his wife give big money to charity but Trump milks charities for money if they have events at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. Greene has pledged to help fund Democratic down-ballot candidates if he wins the nomination Aug. 28, but critics like Sorensen, registered as a no-party-affiliation voter, doubt his sincerity in light of how much he has given in the past and what they see as penny-pinching financial tussles.
Greene has fashioned himself as the anti-Trump since he first began running in June. His first ad featured a brief video clip of him in an argument with Trump right after the election at Trump’s West Palm Beach golf club. Greene’s campaign hasn’t shared the raw video with the news media, but Greene said it shows Trump yelling at him for his opposition to and criticisms of the president-elect.
Greene for years has been a member of Mar-a-Lago, which is a block north of his mansion across Southern Boulevard in Palm Beach. Greene has featured himself in mailers and web ads standing on Mar-a-Lago’s grounds criticizing Trump.
One of Greene’s Democratic rivals, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, criticized Greene at their last debate for saying immediately after the election that Trump was a “great guy.”
“That sounds more like you’re like Donald Trump,” Levine snapped. “And I can tell ya, one Donald Trump is enough, Jeff. It’s enough.”
Greene has countered with an ad criticizing Levine and suggesting he’s more like Trump. Greene’s late entrance and big spending in the Democratic race have dragged Levine’s poll numbers down and helped Gwen Graham nudge into first place, according to most recent polls.
But Greene has attacked the press far more, and far more successfully, than Levine.
Greene sued the Tampa Bay Times for libel after two articles and an editorial in 2010. He also sued the Miami Herald, which is in a partnership with the Tampa Bay paper, for printing two of the articles. Greene lost in court.
But the billionaire kept fighting the cash-strapped papers by appealing and, in 2014, won the right to keep pursing the case. Two years later, the Miami Herald settled for a relatively nominal amount and then the Tampa Bay Times settled for “seven figures,” Greene said.
“Most candidates would not be able to afford to go out and prove they had been libeled. And I said, ‘I’m going to spend my money and do it.’ It took a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of energy,” Greene said.
In a statement at the time, the Tampa Bay Times said the settlement was recommended by the paper‘s insurance carrier. Greene said the paper settled “because they libeled me.”
The stories in question have been removed from the web.
The Miami Herald’s lawyer, Sandy Bohrer, said he couldn’t comment on the case or the settlement. But he said that, during the lawsuit, he got to know Greene, grew to respect him and told him before his gubernatorial bid that he would vote for him if he ran for office.
“The impression I got of Jeff Greene was an actual self-made man, unlike the president,” Bohrer said, describing Greene as “a guy who had his issues, which he did and has, but [is] a sincere guy …. a genuine guy. I looked at him and thought he could get elected and he could spend enough money to get elected. It’s a question of who can beat the Republicans.”
One of the 2010 stories Greene sued over incidentally quoted a dockhand named Harlan Hoffman who was shocked while buffing Greene’s yacht, wound up hospitalized and had to take legal action before his bills were paid eight months later.
“He has this act on TV talking about what a good guy he is, and he’s anything but. He treats his own employees like s—,” Hoffman told the paper in 2010. “If he can’t even treat his employees good, I don’t see how he’s going to do good for the American people.”
The criticism from Hoffman, which Greene did not specifically sue over, resembles that leveled four years later by Sorensen, the contractor, leading Greene to muse that it “sounds like they must have read each other quotes.” Greene said he didn’t know Hoffman. Nor did Greene know that, in 2010, some of his campaign employees complained to the Miami Herald that Greene’s campaign was late in paying them as little as $50 daily for work.
A bigger 2010 campaign dispute erupted after its consulting firm, Devine Mulvey — which went on to represent Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 — sued Greene in Miami court for failing to pay $140,00 for Senate campaign work. Greene paid up two years later, according to his campaign’s termination report.
During the case, Devine Mulvey’s lawyer, like the Miami Herald’s, grew to like Greene.
“I know Jeff because I took his deposition. I was impressed with his history, his background and how he created his wealth,” attorney Abbey L. Kaplan said. “I know there are some issues in that regard. But in the end of the day, I think he has the financial clout to win the election and the position he has taken are in line with my views.”
But yet another attorney in yet another case — Martin Reeder, who represented the now-shuttered Gossip Extra website this year after Greene sued it — said he was concerned with plaintiffs like Greene. His concern was heightened in light of the shocking Tampa jury verdict that shut down the site Gawker after it was sued by former wrestler Hulk Hogan in a privacy lawsuit bankrolled by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel who despised the publication.
“There are more billionaires who are bringing lawsuits so that they can use the court system to try to stifle their critics,” Reeder said. “Once you allow someone to put a media organization out of business because you don’t like what they said, that threatens all media organizations because it’s very difficult to draw a line where the First Amendment stops.”
As for Greene, Reeder said, “I don’t think he’s alone. Take a look at the litigation history of Mr. Trump. He’s another example [of someone who] has routinely used the court system whenever he doesn’t like whatever criticism is coming his way.”
Reeder’s client, Jose Lambiet, shuttered Gossip Extra four months after striking a confidential settlement with Greene over a story concerning a development dispute. Greene said he had no regrets.
Lambiet declined to comment for this article. Before Greene’s suit, Lambiet was already considering closing Gossip Extra for financial reasons as he transitioned into being a full-time private eye.
Coincidentally, before Greene announced his candidacy, word in Palm Beach circles was that a rival billionaire on the island had hired a private eye to gather an opposition-research dossier on Greene. Lambiet would not comment.
Greene didn’t always win in court.
One of Greene’s biggest and best-known court losses came in a 1999 dispute with Ron Howard, the “Happy Days” star who became an Academy Award-winning filmmaker known more recently as the narrator in the Netflix series “Arrested Development.”
At the time, Howard was renting a home from Greene during a Hollywood movie shoot. But the house had water damage and vermin problems, so Howard terminated the lease. Greene sued Howard. Howard countersued and won $105,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages because, Howard’s attorneys told Variety, “the jury found Greene made fraudulent statements about the condition of the house before and during the execution of the lease.”
Howard told POLITICO that a confidential settlement limited what he could say.
“I think the results of the case speak for themselves. Knowing what I know about him, I certainly would never vote for him,” Howard said.
Greene, who in 2010 groused that Howard had “screwed him,” has little nice to say about him now.
“I wouldn’t vote for him either. I wouldn’t vote for him for anything,” Greene said.
But Howard isn’t on the ballot; Greene is. And Greene doesn’t believe he’s beyond criticism. But he said all the disputes should be put in context.
“As long as you say that ‘Jeff Greene does hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of business over his career — and has — and has employed, literally, thousands of subcontractors. And we were able to find in our digging 10 or 12 or 15 problems, out of 10,000,’ I would say ‘great.'”
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