Page Faces Murky Future
In a few short months, his political, personal and business lives have been thrown into turmoil

By Mark Schlueb | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted April 2, 2006

With a political career spanning two decades, Ernest Page should be moving into the role of elder states-man of the Orlando City Council.

But in few short months, Page’s life - political, personal and business – has been thrown into turmoil. The 64-year-old politician now faces an uncertain future:

Page could face prison time if he’s convicted of bribery and misuse of his official authority. He was arrested and removed from office March 1, accused of threatening to kill a housing project unless his nonprofit company is included in the deal.

His nonprofit, Southwest United Communities, maybe headed to court. Performers in the holiday show sponsored by the organization say the company’s checks to them have bounced and they are still owed money. Some are preparing to sue.

Page’s personal life is in transition, with a divorce pending that will end his 13-year marriage. The divorce follows a public splat between Page’s estranged wife and a woman she accused of being his mistress.

At the same time that Page must amount a potentially costly legal defense in his criminal case, his City Council salary has been cut off. And it’s unclear whether he’s still earning rental income; county records show he gave away the last of his real-estate holdings two weeks ago.

The upheaval in Page’s life has brought instability to the City Council, where his seat remains empty. For the second time in year, the city has scheduled a special election after one of its members has been arrested.

Still, colleagues say Page remains upbeat. He continues to work at his nonprofit and attended Commissioner Daisy Lynum’s victory party when she won re-elected two weeks ago.

“He seems to be in very, very good spirits and has a good outlook on what’s going to happen,” said Lynum, who has spoken with Page frequently since his arrest. “I would be surprised if he’s not back within a year.”

New lawyer hired

Page has hired a new attorney to defend him on the two felony charges, each which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Though initially represented by Mark NeJame, a prominent attorney with close ties to Orlando’s power brokers, the two parted ways when it came time to formulate a defense.

Robert Nesmith, Page’s new lawyer, has advised his client not to talk to reporters. Nesmith said the criminal case will probably take months to resolve. He will not rule out a plea deal, but said Page continues to maintain his innocence.

“My philosophy is to do it as fast as you can to get it resolved. It could be six months; it could be a year,” Nesmith said.

The charges stem from voicemail and email threats that Page sent to Tampa minority advocate Al Piña and another would- be business partner in October, according to court documents. In earlier interviews, Page insisted he would be speaking as head of his nonprofit organization – not as a commissioner – when he said a housing project was “dead” unless his group was involved.

The condo-conversion would have produced a $22 million profit, according to financial records prepared for potential investors and reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel. Those documents don’t say how much money Page’s company stood to gain, but Piña and another man familiar with the deal said the group’s return would have been $600,000 to $1.2 million.

Instead, the deal is apparently off. And when Gov. Jeb Bush suspended Page from the City Council, the commissioner lost his $39,297 annual salary. Page’s city salary was one of the three sources of income, along with wages from Southwest United Communities and rent from his land holdings, according to financial statements he is required to file.

Private salary varies

Records show that Page’s salary from his private-sector as executive director of the nonprofit can be unpredictable.

The company’s tax returns reported Page about $23,000 in 2003 and nothing in 2004. But financial records subpoenaed by investigators and released on Friday indicate Page was paid $58,500 in 2003 and $42,750 in 2004. Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar said his investigation showed that Page was paid “in excess of $65,000” in 2005.

But the company has troubles of its own.

Page and Southwest United Communities organized “Soulful Noel,” a Christmas show staged at the TD Waterhouse Centre in December that featured local and out-of-town performers as well as marching bands from Orlando schools. Ticket sales lagged, and several performers-including the executive producer-have accused Page of bouncing checks from the nonprofit to pay them for their work.

“About three days before the performance, he called and tolled me they were out of money,” producer Walter Rutledge said, adding that many of the paychecks Page distributed after the show did not clear.

“By Friday, I’m getting calls saying the checks were bouncing,” said Rutledge, who added that he’s still owed $7,500 and is preparing a lawsuit. “We gave about a month, but he stopped returning phone calls.”

Page divests properties

The status of Page’s third source of income is also murky. Until recently, Page earned rental income from several residential and commercial properties in Richmond Heights, Malibu Groves, Tangelo Park, Ivey Lane Estates and Washington Shores. State-mandated financial disclosure forms don’t show how much.

In transactions recorded between Nov. 11 and March 13, Page transferred all the lands out of his name, records show. The property was divided among Page’s son, a doctor at Florida Hospital; a Davenport woman; and Beverly Bradford, a Southwest United Communities employee.

On paper, Page no longer has any owner interest in the properties he has held for decades. His former home is owned by Wanda Page, his estranged wife. Page made only token amounts from the transfers of four of the seven properties, according to county records. He sold two others for $5,000 each and a third for $11,000, far less than their appraised value and even less than he paid for them in the late 1970s.

It’s unclear why Page divested himself of his real-estate holdings. But the transfers followed Page’s very public split from his wife. The couple’s divorce has not yet been settled.

Accusation, then divorce

While the commissioner was serving as acting mayor last March during Mayor Buddy Dyer’s suspension on an election’s- violation charge, Bradford, the employee at his non profit, sought and injunction against Wanda Page.

In police reports, Bradford said Wanda Page accused her of being the commissioner’s mistress and had threatened and stalked her. Both women opted not to press charges, and the case was closed.

Page filed for divorce Feb. 3, a month before his arrest.

That arrest is the second time in a year the City Council has weathered upheaval. Dyer was unseated for six weeks while his criminal case was pending. A prosecutor eventually dropped the case, cutting short plans for a special election.

The city is planning another special election to fill Page’s seat. Five candidates will be on the April 11 ballot. If Page is cleared, he will return to office. If he is convicted, the city will hold another election to find a permanent replacement.

It hasn’t happened yet, but Page’s absence sets up the potential for tie-vote stalemates on the council. And issues that might not pass without his vote could be put off till there is more stability, Commissioner Phil Diamond said.

“I think it’s probably difficult for the constituents in District 6,” Diamond said. “And I think it’s difficult for the candidates in District 6 – they don’t know weather their campaigning for an office they’ll hold for two years or two weeks.

“They don’t know if Commissioner Page will come back.”

Timeline of events

SUMMER 2005

Al Piña of the Florida Minority Community Reinvestment Coalition contacts Commissioner Ernest Page, head of Southwest United Communities, inquiring about possible projects in Orlando. Page tells Piña about a condo-conversion project.

SEPT.28

Piña, along with several associates, meets with the city’s housing coordinator. Piña wants to convert the Orange Center apartments into condominiums. He is told how to apply for affordable-housing incentives from the city.

OCT.3

After learning that Piña did not include him in his meeting with the city officials, Page leaves angry messages on Piña’s voicemail and email, saying the project is “dead” unless Page’s nonprofit company is included.

NOV.2

Two days after details are reported in the Orlando Sentinel, prosecutors launch an investigation.

FEB.28

Page meets with prosecutors for three hours but receives no assurances he won ’t be charged.

MARCH 1

Page is charged with two felonies and suspended by Gov. Jeb Bush.

MARCH 8

Five candidates qualify to run for Page’s seat in April 11 special election.

MARCH 13

Page files deeds that transfer away ownership of the last of his real-estate holdings.

Source: Orlando Sentinel