House Hunters: Bill Nelson

Florida Democratic senator nabs condo on the cheap from major campaign donor (Updated)

June 8, 2012

Update, June 8, 12:45 p.m.: The original version of this post mischaracterized the Mortgage Forgiveness Tax Relief Act, which applies to homeowners rather than property developers. We regret the error.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson cashed in on Florida’s foreclosure crisis, purchasing a lavish $1 million golf course condominium from a major donor on the cheap.

County real estate records reveal that in November 2011 Nelson purchased a 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom condo at 10339 Kensington Shore Drive for $717,800—$350,000 less than the condo’s $1.07 million value.

10339 Kensington Shore Drive / Google Maps

The property was owned by Issa Homes, which is run by Francis Issa, a longtime Nelson contributor.

Issa and his wife Michelle have given nearly $14,000 to Nelson since 2005 and offered to host a fundraiser for the senator’s reelection campaign in September 2011, two months before Nelson purchased the condo.

The event fell through due to low attendance.

"Its value, like real estate all across Florida, declined after the housing market crash—and after this condo sat empty for a lengthy period of time. In fact, it had never been lived in," Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said. "The price Nelson and his wife paid was almost exactly the same amount paid by someone from Pennsylvania—who bought the same size unit across the hall in the same building in the very same month."

The neighboring unit was purchased three weeks after Nelson finalized the deal for $725,000—$2 more per square foot than Nelson’s condo.

Issa, who has also given more than $100,000 to Democratic candidates and party committees, insisted that he was not involved in the sale, nor has he spoken directly to Nelson in three years.

"We had about 8 units that we couldn’t sell for two years, and the bank agreed to put out a short sale," he said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon. "I had nothing to do with the sale; it was handled by the Nona Lakes marketing department."

McLaughlin said in a phone interview that the senator "never spoke directly to Issa about the property," but hung up when the Washington Free Beacon asked additional questions about Nelson's relationship with the donor.

Lake Nona is an exclusive golfing community in the Orlando area. Nelson’s condo includes membership to the course, which is valued at about $80,000—11 percent of his purchase price. Similar units in Nelson’s building were priced as high as $1.5 million in 2008, but the collapse of the housing market in Florida—which had the 7th highest foreclosure rate in the nation at the time of Nelson’s purchase—allowed Nelson to get the property at a low price.

The 4,800 square foot lakeside condo includes a private elevator, "club membership fee; Mediterranean architecture; 2-car garage; Master suite with his and hers walk-in closets; Great room plan; Designer details throughout; Gourmet kitchen with center island; Breakfast nook; Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances; Lanai; Professionally designed landscape package," according to Issa Homes.

Calls to Lake Nona real estate department went unreturned.

"We spent two years trying to sell before SunTrust [bank] told us to offload them," said Issa, who could not recall if he ever mentioned the property to Nelson in private conversation. "It was all handled by the contractors."

SunTrust Bank’s Florida PAC has given $8,500 to Nelson since 2005.

Several Senate Democrats have been caught up in controversy over property transactions involving donors. Chris Dodd withdrew from his 2010 Connecticut Senate race after it was revealed that he had accepted sweetheart loan deals with mortgage writer Countrywide—a major campaign donor that played a large role in the economic crisis.

Nelson is running a competitive race against likely Republican nominee Rep. Connie Mack.

Issa said he might sit this election out after souring on Democrats over Super PACs.

"Everyone knows politicians pay homage to the guys who pay for campaign advertisements," he said. "We should outlaw PACs—it’s gotten out of control since Citizens United. It’s disgusting."