BRADENTON, Fla. - Bruce Bottorff took Bradenton businessman R. Scott Tibbetts at his word in 2011 when he signed a lease and hired his new landlord to transform a property on the Manatee River into what has become a popular waterfront restaurant.
"He portrayed himself as a general contractor," Bruce Bottorff told the ABC Action News I-Team. "We did utilize his services for a good portion of the work."
Only after shelling out $1.5 million to upgrade the property did Bottorff say he learned two things he would have liked to have known before he signed the restaurant lease. A bank was trying to foreclose on the Tibbetts property after a $7.7 million mortgage default. And Tibbetts wasn't a licensed contractor.
"The city of Bradenton was allowing the permits to be pulled," said Bottorff. "So I didn't have any really reason to believe he wasn't a licensed contractor."
The unlicensed contracting work notwithstanding, Bottorff says business is booming at the Tarpon Pointe Grill & Tiki Bar, as his restaurant approaches its second anniversary. But the restaurant's future is in jeopardy. And Bottorff partly blames what he considers his landlord's close relationship with a top Bradenton city official.
After business took off, Bottorff says Tibbetts demanded higher rent, even though the restaurant owner already pays his landlord more than $200,000 a year.
Bottorff contends Tibbetts wants to terminate his lease so the landlord can take over the flourishing Tarpon Pointe Grill & Tiki Bar and keep all the profits for himself. "Mr. Tibbetts was just looking for somebody to come in, spend money, develop this, and then he would find a way to try to push them out early," said Bottorff, who has been served with a lease-termination notice.
As the men feuded, Bottorff says he belatedly began to research his landlord. He was stunned at what he found.
Tibbetts had incorporated Tarpon Pointe Bar and Grill LLC. The name was quite similar to Bottorff's name for his restaurant, the Tarpon Pointe Grill & Tiki Bar. Even more surprising, Bottorff says, was one of Tibbetts' partners in the venture: Bradenton City Clerk and Chief of Staff Carl Callahan.
"We had no idea that the relationship was as deep as it was, number one, with Mr. Carl Callahan," Bottorff said. "And, number two, that Mr. Tibbetts wasn't even a licensed contractor."
Tibbetts, 58, a former chairman of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, hung up when the I-Team called to ask him about his relationship with Callahan.
For his part, Callahan says he isn't in a position to favor Tibbetts since he has nothing to do with issuing city permits. "I'm not in the business of dispelling what isn't true," Callahan said.
Callahan referred the I-Team to city Planning and Community Development Director Timothy Polk, whose department gave Tibbetts the questionable permits. Polk acknowledged that he answers to Callahan.
Tarpon Pointe Bar and Grill LLC has since been dissolved. But Bottorff noted that didn't happen until last fall, within days of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent visiting Bradenton City Hall to question officials about Callahan's ties to Tibbetts.
A state investigation confirmed that Tibbetts pulled city building permits for a rental property without a contractor's license. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation ordered Tibbetts to stop.
"Normally, we catch those things early on but we're not perfect," Polk told the I-Team. "If we had any inkling that there was work being done by an unlicensed contractor, we would be on top of it."
But Polk says he didn't know the DBPR had issued a cease-and-desist notice to Tibbetts until the I-Team showed him the document. "From my understanding, everything was cleared," Polk said. "DBPR should have let us know this was in play."
After a cursory review, the FDLE concluded in a report that "there is no reasonable suspicion that Callahan exercised, or attempted to exercise, any influence over the permitting process." The FDLE referred the matter of the city approving permits for an unlicensed contractor to the DBPR.
After getting the cease-and-desist order, Tibbetts agreed not to seek any more permits on his own for the rental property, DBPR records show. The DBPR imposed no penalty on Tibbetts, but reserved the right to reopen its investigation if new facts emerge.
Meanwhile, Tibbetts has avoided foreclosure. His lawyer formed a company last year that ended up with the mortgage note as it obtained a $4 million loan from a Tampa businessman, Manatee County records show.
As for the Tarpon Pointe Grill & Tiki Bar, Bradenton officials, after letting Tibbetts' unlicensed contracting work go, are now threatening to close down the thriving restaurant unless more bathrooms are installed.
"If he's not in compliance, he's done," Polk said.
Bottorff is willing to pay for extra bathrooms at the restaurant. But Tibbetts, as landlord, won't sign an application for the city permits to put in the bathrooms, according