False default letter narrative circulated in 2013

January 8, 2018

When the controversy over the Fish House and Seville Harbor leases of Pitts Slip Marina popped up in November 2013, the public was led to believe then City Administrator Colleen Castille was behind the default letter that drew front page headlines. Documents recently released by the city’s Sunshine Center show that it was Mayor Ashton Hayward driving the issue, not Castille.

On Nov. 15, 2013, Beggs & Lane attorney Nix Daniels sent letters to Seville Harbor and Merrill Land stating they were in default for unpaid rent and interest stretching back more than a decade for the Pitts Slip Marina and the Great Southern restaurants. The news of letter was leaked to the daily newspaper by city officials. The allegation was the two companies owed millions to the city of Pensacola.

Seville Harbor sued the city of Pensacola to clear up Ray Russenberger’s name and the reputation of the Merrill family. Mayor Hayward lost the lawsuit at every level. In 2017, the Florida Supreme Court denied his final appeal request. Meanwhile over the four years, the mayor racked up over $310,000 in legal fees with Beggs & Lane.

In late 2013, the narrative out of Pensacola City Hall was Castille was the driving force behind the notice of default letter. She told the Pensacola News Journal that she had met with the mayor and said, “You can’t go send another letter from Jim Messer, because that will not indicate that we’re serious. It’s just another volley of letters.” The public was led to believe it was her decision to send the default notice.

A Beggs & Lane invoice for the default letter gives a very different picture. The work on the default notice began on Oct. 22, 2013-a month after Merrill and a group of local businesses had nearly won support of city council for the concessions contract at the airport. Only a motion to table the final vote had stopped the contract from being awarded to Merrill’s group.

According to the invoice, the memos, phone calls and conferences regarding the Pitts Slip lease involved Daniels, attorney Bob Kerrigan and Mayor Ashton Hayward. Castille was not mentioned. 67565_Redacted.

On Nov. 4, 2013, attorney John Daniel met with Mayor Hayward, Kerrigan and Nix Daniel. He drafted the default letter five days later. On Nov. 15, Nix Daniel had telephone with the mayor and reviewed and revised the letter before it was sent. Again Castille was not included.

The first conference call with Castille was Dec. 3, 2013 after the letter was leaked to the media and the attorneys for Seville Harbor and the Fish House had responded.

Castille is not mentioned again until Dec. 12 regarding a telephone conference between her, City Attorney Jim Messer and attorney John Daniel. A week later on Dec. 18, Daniel has another telephone conference with the mayor, Messer and Castille.

On Jan. 18, 2014, John Daniels reviewed a proposed press release and Castille’s and Fountain’s chronologies regarding release of default letter. No press release on default letter was sent out in January 2014, according to our records.

City of Grudges.

Editor’s notes: Collier Merrill owns a five percent interest in the Independent News. Ray Russenberger owns 2.5 percent of the paper. Neither has, or has ever had, any control over the paper’s editorial coverage.

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