By Jim Bleyer
Jeff Vinik has always been a big con, from his student days at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx to his career as a hedge fund manager in Boston to his reinvention as a sports team owner and developer in Tampa.
His latest con is his biggest one yet and Hillsborough voters are the marks.
Vinik wants to impose a regressive one percent sales tax increase in Hillsborough County that would earmark $16 billion over 30 years for “transit.” The reality: burden low-income families and the middle class to bail out his flailing Water Street Tampa development while displacing a vibrant minority community.
The worst outcome: passage of the referendum would not mitigate traffic congestion one iota.
A light rail spur would run from University of South Florida to downtown to an intermodal transit center in Westshore. There would be no environmental accountability, communities would be lost due to “gentrification,” and oversight would be solely by the profiteers of the boondoggle. Vinik who promised completion of a massive, health-oriented community in downtown Tampa that never materialized, would be saved with a taxpayer bailout.
The sales tax question, buried in a series of referendums and constitutional amendments on Tuesday’s general election ballot, would signal unfettered urban sprawl as developers would continue to pay woefully inadequate impact fees.
Vinik’s history reflects a “ greed is good” Gordon Gekko-esque quality. A quote from his senior high yearbook page: “It’s not how you play the game. It’s what college you get into.”
That contrasts quite a bit from his classmates who defined the world in more charitable, less cynical terms.
Vinik hails from Deal, NJ, a hotbed of white collar crime on an international scale.
The former Boston-based hedge fund manager reinvented himself in Tampa where many residents remain unaware Vinik managed two underperforming hedge funds, endured ethical controversies involving his management of the funds, and that he was a target of several shareholder lawsuits and an SEC investigation.
He initially ran Fidelity Magellan, the world’s largest stock mutual fund at the time, only to step down in 1996 after a costly bet on Treasuries.
Just prior to his departure, the New York Times reported: “In the last six months, shifts in the fund’s portfolio have been relentlessly scrutinized and roundly criticized as its performance lagged further and further behind the overall stock market. More than a dozen lawsuits have accused the then 37-year-old Mr. Vinik of stock manipulation, contending that he extolled a stock in public to keep its price up as he quietly sold large holdings -a claim that he denies.”
A year later, Fidelity Investments paid about $10 million to settle a lawsuit against the company and Vinik, its former manager. Plaintiffs claimed he misled individuals into buying Micron Technology stock at the same time the Magellan Fund he managed was selling the stock.
The class-action lawsuit accused Fidelity and Vinik of fraud.
Vinik’s lyin’ and buyin’ strategy to sell the transit tax to voters amounts to fraud.
The false transit narratives by Vinik and his stooges have been coming fast and furiously since the referendum’s inception months ago. The Gekko-inspired lying persists in the mainstream local media, particularly the financially-reeling Tampa Bay Times that Vinik rescued with a temporary cash infusion last year.
The Times has covered Vinik’s checkered past and withheld damning facts about the transit tax from its dwindling readership.
The incestuous relationships involved in this boondoggle include the Times, the University of South F,orida, the Tampa Airport Authority, the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Brightline, Ybor City real estate magnate Darryl Shaw, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, Mercury Public Relations, plus local businessmen Frank Morsani and Chuck Sykes.
Sternberg benefits because if the referendum passes, public funds now earmarked for transit would become the mother lode for subsidizing a new Rays stadium in Ybor City.
Those are just the main players. Several engineering firms and land use attorneys expect a huge financial windfall on the backs of working families. Besides the Times, at least two other local media entities and a political blog have received payments emanating from Vinik’s Strategic Property Partners.
Then there was the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) mess. The museum hemorrhaged so much money that the Hillsborough County Commission earmarked funds for a bailout. Vinik wantd to move MOSI to Water Street at a cost of $25 million to taxpayers.
Why? Water Street was unable to lure any tenants, let alone the Fortune 500 companies that Vinik boasted about in his initial press releases. The relocation would be paid for with public funds—what else?—and it would be hailed as a feather in the chapeau of Molly Demeenare, Vinik’s friend from Sarasota that he installed as MOSI CEO.
Her elevation of to permanent CEO was enigmatic at the time for those not knowing her connections. She was a professional ballroom dancer who failed as executive director of a Sarasota children’s museum that folded. She did not complete a two-year associate’s degree at Edison Community College; the job specs for MOSI CEO required a master’s degree.
Demeulenaere’s ineptitude finally caught up with her—again—and she resigned from MOSI in 2017. The Times never questioned her credentials and actually concocted a story that Vinik and Demeulenaere had a “getting to know you” meeting.” Sarasota sources have told Tampa Bay Beat that Vniik and Demeulenaere were acquainted prior to her being named permanent CEO at MOSI.
This contorted relationship only matters because a few million in public funds have been wasted with the MOSI machinations.
It’s time to resist taking another haircut from Vinik.
Rescuing Vinik and freeing up county funds for a billionaire’s ballpark in Ybor will come at the expense of anyone with children in K-12, educators, low wage workers, retirees and the disabled on fixed incomes, anyone living in Temple Terrace, Plant City, or unincorporated Hillsborough County, minority communities in East Tampa that will be displaced by light rail planned between the University of South Florida and downtown Tampa, opponents of urban sprawl, true environmentalists, local big box retailers, the tourism industry, and any citizen opposing corporate cronyism.
Hasn’t this wheelerDealer pigged out enough at the public trough?