Billionaire media magnate Sumner Redstone has played a sizable role in Longboat Key’s coming election, specifically in the referendum for redevelopment of the former Colony Beach & Tennis Resort.
The foundation of the controlling shareholder of Viacom and CBS Corporation donated $10,000 to Preserve Longboat Inc., a political action committee opposing the referendum to allow up to 180 residential units on the Colony site. The contribution from the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation accounts for more than 37% of the $26,850 the PAC has raised as of Feb. 28.
“I don’t really know anything about that, and I have no comment,” said Peter Isenberg, accountant for the foundation.
The foundation in 2015 donated $19.5 million to various community and educational organizations, including Harvard College, the American Museum of Movies and Cedars Sinai Medical Center, according to the latest available Form 990 filing from that fiscal year.
Although 501(c)(3) organizations can’t legally contribute money to political candidates or committees supporting candidates, they can legally donate to committees supporting or opposing ballot measures, according to the website of the Internal Revenue Service.
Still, Unicorp National Developments President Chuck Whittall plans to file a complaint with the Florida Election Commission with the hope of a state investigation.
“It would be a real shame if this election was swayed by an illegal or improper donation to the group opposing us,” he said.
Another donation — $2,000 from the Fortunato Revocable Trust — also has ties to the Redstone family. Paula Fortunato, ex-wife of Sumner Redstone, bought a unit in Tencon next to the Colony for $2.6 million in 2008, according to documents filed with the Sarasota County Clerk of the Court. It is now an asset of the Fortunato-Redstone Trust.
Although the ownership of the Fortunato Revocable Trust could not be verified by the Longboat Observer, the New Vernon, N.J. address included for the donation lists James and Lillian Geswelli, Paula Fortunato’s sister and brother-in-law as owners.
“I don’t know the person directly at all,” said Frank Morneau, Chairman of Preserve Longboat. “I think it might be a relative from California.”
Preserve Longboat has only spent about $12,500 of its donations, according to the February filing, mostly on newspaper advertisements and political mailings. The group has cited strain on traffic, beach crowding and loss of views as reasons to vote against the proposal, along with potential loss of property values.
Of the 57 donations to Preserve Longboat, with an average contribution of $471.05, another notable donation is $1,000 from Ryan Snyder, the owner of Whitney Beach Plaza on the north end of the island.
Early voting is currently under way for the March 14 election, and the polls open on election day at 7 a.m.
So why has Preserve Longboat embarked on an expensive political and public relations campaign after the previous three referendums were denied, instead of sitting back and hoping the trend continues?
“Are we prepared to take that risk while a young man spending millions of dollars is going around on a PR campaign trying to talk people into things that are totally unrealistic?” Morneau asked in a previous interview. “If he ever won the vote, God bless us, watch the ‘for sale’ signs pop up.”