CONDO ELECTION TIFF, THEN FEUD, BECOMES BIG-BUCKS LAWSUIT
Published by: The Miami Herald
Print date: June 14, 2003
Written by: Jay Weaver
Lee Turner just wanted to update his ’60s-era Miami Beach condo building, especially that hideous red carpet in the hallways.
So in February, he put together a slate of candidates to challenge what he believed was an autocratic board of directors. Days later, he says, someone poured fish oil into his Porsche Boxster’s air-conditioning system.
Then a condo owner campaigning for the incumbent board accused Turner of assaulting him as he put up “truth” fliers. They were signed “Zorro” – a not-so-subtle reference to the “gay blade” and Turner’s homosexuality.
The accuser, David Bernstein, filed a police report.
“This was an election for a condo board, not the U.S. Senate,” Turner, 45, said Friday. After losing his bid to be the condo’s president, he’s now suing his association and Bernstein – seeking $1 million in damages.
“In his mind and his mouth, this is an outright lie that [Turner] has made up,” said Bernstein’s wife, Martha, who spoke for her 76-year-old husband because he just underwent open-heart surgery. “He is grabbing at straws to make money off this lawsuit.”
According to Turner, the election began innocently enough. “The plan was to update the building in an affordable manner,” he said. The 1963 Miami building was designed by architect Morris Lapidus and once occupied by notable snowbird celebrities John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. But a flier put out by Turner and his slate of reform candidates “altered the mood of the campaign,” Turner said. “We called for an open investigation into the operational budget of the building, and I think this threatened the board,” Turner explained.
Welcome to life at the King Cole Condominium at 900 Bay Dr. on Normandy Isle, a 285-unit building designed by the late Miami Modern master Morris Lapidus.
Lapidus is the architect of the famous Fontainebleau Hilton, which stands on Collins Avenue several miles south of Turner’s condo overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, the Atlantic Ocean and the mid-Beach high-rises.
Turner, who works for American Airlines as a flight attendant, bought his one-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment on the 10th floor in 2001 after moving from Los Angeles. He liked the tropical lifestyle at the King Cole so much that he bought another unit across the hall for his mother and ailing father last year.
But his lawsuit contends that their world quickly turned ugly after he and six others challenged the incumbent condo board.
‘WE FINALLY MEET’
Turner said he caught Bernstein putting up one of the fliers after checking on his Porsche on an April morning. He recalled saying to Bernstein, “Well, Zorro, we finally meet.”
“I reached to pull the poster down,” Turner said. “I didn’t attack him. He called me crazy.”
Bernstein’s wife defended her husband.
“Nobody in this building harassed [Turner] for being homosexual,” she said.
Later in April, another anonymous letter documenting Turner’s 1998 bankruptcy filing in Los Angeles was sent to all of the King Cole condo owners.
Turner’s suit also accuses the condo association’s former president, Rolando Arocha, of orchestrating the “malicious” campaign against him.
“He’s a liar and a sick person,” said Arocha, who was reelected to the condo association in mid-April. “He’s suing the association, the association should sue him, too.”
Turner’s attorney, Tom Equels, said the condo board intimidated and libeled his client to rob him of his right to free speech as a political candidate.
“When you’re dealing with the governance of your own home, you have to take extra care that this kind of conduct is not allowed,” Equels said. “If you allow this kind of behavior, you’re turning over the governance of your home to bullies.”
Turner and his parents are putting their condos, bought for $90,000 and $95,000, up for sale.
He said he wants to buy a sailboat and live on it. He also hopes to set up his parents in a condo in South Beach.
Said Turner: “We will survive the King Cole.”