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Saying a judge's ruling weakened the case against Stadium Naples co-defendant Paul Hardy, prosecutors agreed Tuesday to drop the charges against the Southwest Florida developer within 60 days.

Hardy, 48, who was charged with racketeering and racketeering conspiracy in the 6-year-old public corruption case, could have faced 18 months in prison if convicted by a jury. His attorneys contended Hardy repeatedly was approached during the past two years by prosecutors offering a plea deal with reduced charges.

But the only deal Hardy would take was to have the charges dropped.

And that's exactly what he got Tuesday.

Howard Srebnick, Hardy's lead defense attorney, said prosecutors contacted Srebnick around 11:30 p.m. Monday, offering to drop the charges if Hardy would pay $50,000 for investigative costs. The agreement calls for dropping the charges within 60 days to give Hardy enough time to gather the money.

Hardy is the only one of the 10 defendants to have charges dropped.

"We will not be refiling, your honor," Special Prosecutor Michael Von Zamft told Senior Circuit Judge Stephen Dakan.

Von Zamft told reporters later that dropping the case against Hardy strengthened the case against his co-defendant, former Collier County Commissioner John Norris.

Then, later Tuesday, Norris pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and unlawful compensation charges.

Standing on the steps of the Sarasota County Judicial Center, where the trial had been moved because of advance publicity in Collier County, Hardy told reporters he had mixed feelings about the trial ending abruptly, adding that he had been looking forward to the trial.

"I have consistently refused to accept any other resolution of this case because I did not commit any crime," Hardy said in a prepared statement. "From the beginning, I have maintained my innocence, truthfully cooperated with the investigation, and even passed a lie detector test."

With his two college-age daughters by his side, Hardy appeared shell-shocked rather than relieved. He spoke only briefly with a half-dozen members of the Southwest Florida media, who followed him to Sarasota to cover the high-profile public corruption case.

Hardy was accused of participating in a conspiracy to deprive the citizens of Collier County of the honest services of government officials by offering them incentives in return for favorable treatment for development projects.

Tuesday was to be the second day of jury selection in what was predicted to be a month-long trial of Hardy and Norris.

Co-defendants William Rasmussen, David Mobley and Hardy's developer father, Bob Hardy, are scheduled to be sentenced in Sarasota this week. Mobley is scheduled for sentencing at 11 a.m. today. Rasmussen and Bob Hardy are scheduled to be sentenced at 11 a.m. Friday.

Hardy said he felt great empathy for "the man who is still up there,'' referring to Norris, whose plea deal was still being worked out at the time.

Norris sat alone in courtroom 6A while his attorneys and prosecutors worked out terms of the deal. Norris agreed to serve one year of house arrest, five years' probation and pay $10,000 in investigative costs to the 20th Judicial Circuit spanning Southwest Florida. Prosecutors dropped one racketeering charge and three unlawful compensation charges against Norris.

Hardy, arrested in October 2001, said he has spent about $1 million on attorneys' fees. Howard Srebnick and his brother, Scott Srebnick, who also represented co-defendant Renee Tolson, are renowned Miami defense attorneys who command hefty legal fees.

Howard Srebnick said Hardy's trial alone would have cost well into six figures to pay both brothers, who are from separate Miami law firms.

Hardy lamented that the other defendants didn't have the resources to fight the charges for as long as he did.

"Unfortunately, other innocent defendants in this case did not have the financial resources or the physical and emotional stamina to withstand this prolonged prosecution," Hardy said in his prepared statement.

Howard Srebnick said Hardy passed a lie detector test that showed he committed no crime.

Srebnick said he wasn't surprised that the state finally dropped the charges.

"I am surprised that it took this long," he said.

Hardy has suffered great financial, emotional and business setbacks because of the charges, Srebnick said. For example, Hardy has had to get out of the development business because banks won't lend him money as a result of the charges.

In the mid-1990s, Paul Hardy had formed a business partnership called Maricopa-Hardy Development Group with David Mobley.

Mobley, also charged in the Stadium Naples case, was sentenced to 171/2 years in federal prison after confessing in a federal case to bilking his hedge fund investors out of $120 million. Hardy and Mobley were partners in the development of The Strand golf course community in North Naples. And they were to be partners with Norris in the spectator golf arena called Stadium Naples, which collapsed when the public learned of Norris' no-money-down stake in the deal valued at up to $7.5 million.

Srebnick told reporters gathered on the Sarasota courthouse steps Tuesday that the state had no case against Hardy. At first Srebnick implied there was no wrongdoing on the part of any of the defendants in the Stadium Naples case, but he backed off of that position.

"I can't tell you what everybody else did," he said.

Prosecutors said they were prompted to drop the charges against Hardy after Dakan ruled Monday not to allow the jury to hear evidence about a $100,000 loan to a business of former commissioner Tim Constantine.

Von Zamft said excluding that evidence would likely have led to excluding other evidence for the same reason and would have greatly weakened the conspiracy case against Hardy.

Dakan had said late Monday that he would hear arguments on the Constantine Educorp business loan Tuesday, but that he pretty much had made up his mind on the matter. Dakan said that because neither Hardy nor Norris participated in the loan, it was unlikely it could be used as evidence in their cases.

But Von Zamft's team argued that the racketeering conspiracy charges mean that a group of people conspired to commit crimes. Von Zamft argued that even though not every member committed every crime, if the state could prove they are part of the conspiracy, they could be charged. Von Zamft argued that the Educorp loan was key to showing that more than one commission vote was compromised by the defendants' offering of financial incentives.

Mobley and Bob Hardy provided the Educorp loan that was never paid back. When issues relating to Hardy developments came before the commission, Constantine's vote as well as Norris' vote would have been compromised, Von Zamft argued.

But when Dakan didn't agree to that interpretation of the racketeering conspiracy law, Von Zamft said he chose to drop the charges against Hardy so he could use Norris' admission of guilt to the Ethics Commission in June 2000 against Norris.

Dakan had already ruled that the admission couldn't be entered in a joint trial because it referred to Hardy. However, it could be used if the charges against Hardy were dropped.

"If I could only go after one, it needed to be Norris," Von Zamft said.

Von Zamft said the plea talks Monday night didn't go exactly as Howard Srebnick implied, saying talks began earlier in the evening when Srebnick contacted prosecutors and that the late-night call was one of several.


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