Case Dismissed

How badly does Richard A. Corbett want to hide the size of the financial hit that taxpayers may be taking on his sweetheart mall lease at Tampa International Airport?

Badly enough that he will pay higher property tax than he thinks he and his International Plaza partners should. Corbett has a long-term lease on the site of the International Plaza mall, set to open on airport land Sept. 13. Federal auditors and other critics think airport officials vastly undervalued the site as a shopping mall. The critics estimate airport users and taxpayers will have to make up lost revenue of $500-million — rent that Corbett avoids paying over the remaining 79 years of the lease.

Tampa Westshore Associates Ltd., as the Corbett partnership is known, went to court last year to challenge a Hillsborough County tax assessment of the mall. When county Property Appraiser Rob Turner insisted on seeing a document Corbett has fought to keep secret, the partnership dropped the lawsuit May 25.

The Corbett partnership waited until the last business day before a court hearing at which Turner was to ask Circuit Judge Dick Greco Jr. to force the partnership to produce the document.

"They blinked," said Turner.

The document, known as a lease-arrangement agreement, is believed to spell out the financial relationship between Corbett and his retail development partners, Taubman Centers Inc. and Ivanhoe Inc.

Such documents are typically nobody else's business. But the Corbett agreement covers private use of public land and may be the only indication of how valuable Corbett thought his mall lease truly was. Tampa Westshore Associates wanted to meet in the middle on an assessment figure, Turner said, but he wouldn't bargain without reviewing the lease arrangement.

"Our attitude was," said Turner lawyer William D. Shepherd, "we'll get the lease and then we'll talk."

Turner's stubbornness apparently persuaded the Corbett partnership that a lower tax bill wasn't worth tempting a court order to turn over the lease-arrangement pact. Aaron R. Bilton, a Chicago lawyer representing Tampa Westshore Associates, declined comment.

So Tampa Westshore Associates will receive no refund whatsoever of the $965,995 it paid in 2000 property tax on Turner's $38-million assessment.

Meanwhile, longtime Corbett attorney David M. Mechanik has filed an appearance to defend Corbett and his partners against a public-records lawsuit filed by the Weekly Planet. The newspaper wants a copy of the lease-arrangement agreement from Corbett or airport officials.

The document is a public record under Florida law, according to the Planet lawsuit. A hearing has yet to be scheduled.

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