Page to Get Word Today on Charges

By Mark Schlueb | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted March 1, 2006

Federal Attorney Mark NeJameAfter a last-ditch effort to avoid prosecution, Orlando Commissioner Ernest Page could be charged today with using his position to threaten a housing project unless his nonprofit group was cut in on the deal.

Page and his attorney Mark NeJame, met with representatives of the State Attorney's Office for three hours Tuesday, but NeJame said they received no assurances the commissioner was in the clear.

A few hours after the meeting, State Attorney Lawson Lamar scheduled a news conference for this afternoon to announce a decision.

"We're going to be releasing the results of the investigation of Ernest Page," said Randy Means, Lamar's chief of investigations.

Four weeks ago, Page predicted there was "no way" he would be charged over the deal first reported in the Orlando Sentinel. He would not comment Tuesday but continued to declare his innocence through his lawyer. NeJame said his client was speaking as a private citizen -- not as a city commissioner -- when he left angry messages for a would-be business partner saying "the project is dead if you don't talk to me quick."

"Mayor Page is adamant about his innocence regarding the suggestions that have been made against him," NeJame said, using the title Page earned while filling in for Mayor Buddy Dyer last year. "We heard a decision was going to be forthcoming very soon. It was incumbent on Mayor Page to get some facts to the State Attorney's Office that had not been fully explored so the full story could be told."

The State Attorney's Office has not said what law Page may have broken, but the commissioner was accused of threatening to use his authority as a member of the City Council to benefit his nonprofit group.

His trouble stems from those dual roles as a city commissioner and director of Southwest United Communities Inc., the nonprofit community-development company he founded in 1995.

Page's nonprofit has long been interested in buying a group of rundown apartment buildings in west Orlando and converting them to condos. Last summer, he discussed the project with Al Pina, a Tampa minority advocate with a similar nonprofit group, and the two talked about partnering on the deal.

But after they met a number of times, discussed the project with a bank lender and toured the property, Pina decided to proceed alone -- without informing Page.

Pina has told the Sentinel that he had grown concerned that Page's position as a city commissioner would present a conflict of interest. Had the proposal moved forward, the City Council would eventually have been asked to approve federal housing dollars for the project and city staffers would have had to sign off on plans and permits.

Page counters that Pina was simply trying to steal his group's deal.

Regardless, when Page learned on Oct. 3 that Pina had met with city housing officials about the project earlier that day, he sent angry voice-mail and e-mail messages to Pina.

"The city is not going to be involved unless Southwest United Communities is involved. In other words, the project is dead if you don't talk to me quick," Page said in the voice mail, in which he identified himself as "Mayor Page."

Pina said Page was threatening to use his authority as a commissioner to kill the deal unless his nonprofit was included.

On Tuesday, Page blamed the controversy on Pina, saying the Tampa man tried to double-cross his Orlando nonprofit.

"The board members of Southwest United Communities feel Mr. Pina acted in bad faith and attempted to steal this project," NeJame said. "For Mr. Pina to now suggest wrongdoing on Mayor Page's part is ludicrous and an attempt to manipulate the system."

Pina could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

If Page is arrested, it would be the second arrest of a member of the City Council in a year. Dyer was arrested last year, charged with violating state law by paying a campaign worker to gather absentee ballots. For the six-week period before charges were dismissed and Dyer returned to office, Page filled in as acting mayor.

If Page is arrested, Gov. Jeb Bush -- following his administration's policy for elected officials charged with breaking the law -- would likely suspend him from office. Under the city charter, Dyer would then schedule a special election to fill Page's District 6 commission seat pending the outcome of his case.

It would also be the second arrest for Page. In 1993, while serving his first council term, Page was convicted of grand theft after being filmed in a police sting buying stolen office equipment.

He served eight months in jail and later ran for re-election.

Source: Orlando Sentinel