Coley on the Rocks?

Last Jan. 26, the St. Petersburg Times and The Tampa Tribune published their first and to date only stories about the demise of Coley Communications Inc.

Businesses fail all the time. But the circumstances surrounding the collapse of Coley Communications were a bit unusual.

First, the company's sole owner was Tampa political consultant Jon P. Coley. Despite driving Coley Communications into bankruptcy last year, Coley rebounded quickly to partner with state Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Palm Harbor) in a new campaign advisory service.

Second, Coley Communications, which worked primarily for Republicans, went Chapter 7 in spite of reporting revenue of $1.4-million for the very good GOP election year of 2000.

The headlines in the Times ("Old bills dog Sen. Latvala's partner") and the Tribune ("Politicians Chagrined by Debts of Consultant") couldn't have helped Coley's new business.

But the bad news doesn't appear to have hurt Latvala, Coley and Co. LLC much, either.

Since those ugly January headlines, neither daily paper has seen fit to mention Coley's old company again. In fact, the dailies lately have been initiating Coley into their pantheon of dial-a-quote pundits, next to ol' reliables Wayne Garcia and Susan MacManus, who are quick with a pithy comment on just about any political development for scribes on deadline.

Coley told Weekly Planet that is how it should be.

The election consultant won't get into specifics about the bankruptcy and related litigation while it is all unsettled. But Coley says his old company isn't newsworthy. Unlike some election consultants, Coley says he doesn't change hats after the votes are in and become a paid lobbyist trying to influence elected officials.

Coley says he has learned from his mistakes at Coley Communications. Running political campaigns in hectic election years is "organized chaos," says Coley, and his accounts payable got away from him in 2000.

With the exception of Hillsborough County's state attorney, Mark Ober, Coley says his clients have not abandoned him. "The reason I'm hired is I do good work," said Coley. "They don't hire me for my accounting."

Coley unabashedly advocates for those clients. Last month, in the midst of a Republican primary brawl between Hillsborough commissioners Stacey Lyn Easterling and Jim Norman, Coley threw a rhetorical punch for his man.

"I have never seen anyone operate with the lack of ethics of these people," Norman consultant Coley commented to the Times on eventual loser Easterling and her handlers.

Yet, if newspaper knocks on Coley Communications have subsided, the company's problems have not.

Lauren P. Greene, a bankruptcy trustee assigned to the Coley case, received court permission in April to hire her own legal counsel. Greene told the court that she needed trustee's counsel Stephen L. Meininger to investigate certain issues in the Coley case and, if necessary, "take legal action to avoid fraudulent conveyances," among other tasks.

One of Meininger's first assignments will be to question Coley under oath about the disbursement of almost $42,000 in company funds in the year before the August 2001 bankruptcy filing. Most of the money went to Coley via company checks written to himself or to cash, according to court records.

The Coley Communications president won't have his defunct company's original bankruptcy lawyer at his side when the questioning begins. Joryn Jenkins withdrew from the case, citing "irreconcilable differences" with her client.

The company's bankruptcy petition shows Coley Communications took in more than $2-million between 1999 and 2001. Coley says most of that went right back out again to pay vendors with whom he has maintained good business relations.

But the petition shows total liabilities of $217,891, including $26,268 owed to the Internal Revenue Service and $6,039 to the Florida Department of Revenue. Coley says he has already paid off some of the IRS debt.

Direct-mail companies took bigger hits. For example, Coley Communications owes $53,639 to a Tampa mailer.

One of the smaller unsecured creditors was a shopper published by local Republican operative Dick Mandt, which was dinged for $3,131. Mandt sits on the board of the Planet's owner and Coley says Mandt put the Planet up to writing about his former company.

Mandt has sued Norman over a direct-mail piece that Coley sent to voters on behalf of the county commissioner before last month's primary.

Coley sounded very skeptical when told that the Planet first started researching his company's bankruptcy weeks before the dailies published their stories last winter. The Planet news staff hasn't contacted Mandt or been contacted by him about Coley.

The bankruptcy of Coley Communications puts its former owner potentially on the bad side of more powerful Republicans than Mandt.

The Texas Republican Party claims to be owed $15,000 by Coley Communications, which worked on the 2000 election campaign of a Lone Star State congressman.

Mark P. Kelly, a Tampa lawyer representing the Texas GOP, speculated there might be repercussions for a consultant who stiffs the home state party of a sitting U.S. president. But Kelly says the unpaid Texas debt doesn't seem to have hindered Coley in local Republican circles.

Former Coley client Mark Ober agreed. To Ober's amazement, Coley has dodged most of the Coley Communications fallout. "I'm surprised it didn't come up in the (September primary) campaign," said Ober, whose 2000 state attorney's campaign paid $155,471 to Coley Communications.

Coley, who described Ober as his only disgruntled ex-client, says they are at loggerheads over a single unpaid bill for $848.

However, Ober says there are at least two bills amounting to almost $3,000 that went unpaid by Coley. The county's chief prosecutor suspects there may be other vendors whose services to his campaign went uncompensated by Coley Communications, which nevertheless received payment from Ober's campaign for contracting to have the work done.

Ober says he has offered to repay from personal funds any of his campaign vendors who aren't made whole by resolution of the Coley Communications bankruptcy.

Coley told the Planet that Coley Communications was sunk mostly by greedy or incompetent vendors and the legal fees it took to fend them off.

In the year leading up to the Chapter 7 filing, though, Coley Communications managed to pay its namesake president $75,333. The money is still rolling in this year to Latvala, Coley and Co.

In Hillsborough races alone, Latvala, Coley and Co. has received through early September almost $90,000 from the campaigns of Norman, County Judge Eric Myers and two other commission contenders.

Another Coley client is sticking with him, too.

Tampa City Councilman Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, says he will continue to use Coley for his mayoral campaign despite the consultant's problems.

Stephen Meininger, the bankruptcy trustee's counsel in the Coley case, says there is nothing legally to prevent a businessman from ditching one company in Chapter 7 and starting another.

"The (first) corporation just dies," Meininger said.

Contact News Editor Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected].

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