It's curious how the prospect of jail can make a rich man find his wallet. What's even more curious is how Evergreen-based homebuilder Clyde Hoeldtke lost his again.
This tale of a here-today-gone-tomorrow checkbook began about four years ago, when Gail Conolly, an assistant statewide prosecutor in Florida, began pursuing Hoeldtke. The chase started after dozens of people who'd purchased one of the developer's Beacon Homes in west-central Florida complained that they had been sold unfinished--or even unbuilt--houses. Others claimed Hoeldtke had left them fighting liens filed against them by subcontractors he hadn't paid ("Arrested Development," March 21).
Conolly finally ran Hoeldtke down this past spring, when the developer cut a deal with prosecutors. He agreed to plead guilty to misappropriating construction funds, for which he was sentenced to a suspended four-and-a-half-year jail term, two years of "community control" and $156,000 in restitution payments.
Even Conolly concedes that the bargain was one-sided. For starters, Hoeldtke's community control was limited to house arrest. That might be considered doing hard time in some neighborhoods, but it hardly seemed harsh punishment for Hoeldtke, who lives in a 5,600-square-foot mansion on thirty acres high above Evergreen in an exclusive enclave called The Timbers.
In addition, the amount of restitution was paltry compared with the estimated $3 million Hoeldtke left behind in unpaid bills. In fact, only 23 of the 159 homebuyers that Hoeldtke bilked are eligible for a piece of the restitution pie.
Florida prosecutors have made efforts to compensate for the light sentence. One method has been to persistently demand specific financial information from the developer. Because so few of the defrauded Beacon Homes buyers received satisfaction through the criminal courts, many are contemplating civil lawsuits. And a detailed portrait of Hoeldtke's assets would come in very handy to someone trying to recover financial damages.
Perhaps recognizing how vulnerable an intimate portrait of his finances could make him, the developer has just as persistently refused to comply with the prosecutors' requests. (Hoeldtke and his attorney could not be reached for comment.) "He was playing a financial shell game with us," says Conolly.
For example, she recalls: "We asked him, 'Do you have any personal property that you've owned within the last three years?' And he would answer, 'None.' And I would say to his lawyers, 'You mean he's got a 5,600-square-foot mansion out in Colorado, and he doesn't have a stick of furniture in it? He doesn't have a TV or a VCR? He doesn't even own a car?'"
Conolly had other reasons to doubt the developer's forthrightness. She notes, for instance, that with only minimal digging, she learned that one of Hoeldtke's bank accounts had seen just under $1 million pass through it in the past year and a half.
After requesting more detailed information three times and getting rebuffed, Conolly asked a judge to find Hoeldtke in contempt of court. On July 10 the judge obliged; Hoeldtke's sentencing was set for this fall.
Which leads to the vanishing wallet.
Two days before the sentencing, the Florida statewide prosecutors, Hoeldtke's attorneys and Pasco County Circuit Judge William Webb held a teleconference. During it, one of Hoeldtke's lawyers revealed there had been a development: A friend of Hoeldtke's had placed $156,129.01 in an escrow account in Colorado--the exact amount the developer still owed in restitution.
The attorney had a question: If Hoeldtke were to pay his restitution--in full and immediately--would that have any effect on a potential jail sentence? (Until this point, Hoeldtke had managed to whittle only $3,000 off the tab.)
The prosecutor's office considered the request. "It must be a very good friend to give him $157,000," Joe Larrinaga, Conolly's boss in the prosecutor's office, recalls thinking. He also recalls thinking: "And suddenly, when he's basically standing on the jailhouse steps, this money happens to fall out of the sky?"
The prosecutor's office reached a conclusion. "Basically," Conolly says, "Hoeldtke was coming in and trying to buy his way out of any jail time." The judge said that Hoeldtke's offer wouldn't make any difference in his sentencing.
On September 11 Hoeldtke appeared before Judge Webb and was sentenced to 180 days in jail for contempt of court. Four hours later he posted a $25,000 bond. Hoeldtke remains free--although clamped inside his mansion under house arrest--until his appeal is heard in several months.
What continues to perplex prosecutors, though, is that Hoeldtke seems to have forgotten about the escrow account allegedly containing enough money to pay the bilked Florida homeowners. Conolly says that since Hoeldtke wound up in stir, he hasn't mentioned the offer to retire his restitution debt.
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"The funny thing was, after the judge sentenced him anyway, the money disappeared," she says.
"It was just the strangest thing," adds Larrinaga.
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