On September 9, 2007, a line of 40 people snaked single file through the highlands of Papua, New Guinea. Native Kaiberem villagers, perched on mountain ledges above, watched the travelers make their way uphill. It looked like an entire small town was trekking toward them through the forest.
The villagers are a diminutive people dressed in grass skirts, necklaces filled with the bones of the dead, and headdresses of cockatoo, lorikeet, and parrot feathers. The natives can slip unencumbered along the muddy paths of the New Guinea highlands, walking dozens of miles without food or drink. To them, that line of travelers loaded down with video equipment and energy bars must have looked as ridiculous as a colony of ants lugging twice their weight in bread crumbs. Few of the villagers watching the procession that day had ever laid eyes on a white person.
When the strange party arrived at Kaiberem that afternoon, the visitors handed around unimaginable devices: flashlights and compasses, sunglasses, cameras, and watches that signified time in ways the villagers hardly understood. The Kaiberem people huddled and grinned for the first photos they'd ever posed for, waving tiny American flags. Hosts and guests sat down to a lunch of sweet potatoes, corn, and green beans cooked in an underground pit. Afterward, a village elder remarked that he was "happy to see a white face" before he died.
One of the white faces was Harvey Oyer III, a 39-year-old attorney from West Palm Beach. Tall, well muscled, with dusty reddish-blond hair, cool blue eyes, and translucently pale skin, Oyer was as great a novelty for the villagers as any flashlight or digital camera. The group Oyer had joined was a flag expedition mounted by the Explorer's Club; its purpose was to find and document remote Papuan villages in more than a month of walking.
Oyer was planning to interview all the Papuan people he could before their myths and histories were obliterated. And he could hardly move fast enough: The country was "crawling with missionaries," he wrote in his field report. The people he'd met in outlying villages were already reluctant to talk about the old ways: ancestors who flew from tree to tree, skull houses crammed with the bones of their fathers, sorcerers. The people of New Guinea knew they could trade their fresh Christian piety for medicine, clothing, and education. And communication wasn't easy: The natives spoke 400 separate languages.
Oyer was pushing into the heart of darkness for his own private reasons. The clay path he walked was slippery. Poisonous snakes known to strike a man dead lay hidden in the trees. He was damp, mud-stained, traveling through countryside the U.S. State Department had listed as "extremely dangerous." But with every step toward the remote interior of New Guinea, he moved away from a failed marriage, from the West Palm Beach law firm from which he'd just resigned, and from the tangled land deals he'd brokered.
Also receding in the distance behind him was the largest public corruption conspiracy to hit Palm Beach County in nearly a century. In an investigation that had spanned the previous 11 months, Oyer had been associated with crimes that had brought a Palm Beach County commissioner and one of the most powerful and well-connected lawyers in South Florida to their knees. Attorney Bill Boose and County Commissioner Tony Masilotti were headed for prison. With every step, the scandal and Oyer's own role in it grew dimmer, the embarrassing months of grilling by FBI agents and prosecutors, the late-night phone calls from reporters, the rumors whispered in the halls of the courthouse. Oyer had somehow slipped away from it all, a free man.
But few close observers, studying the pages of the court papers, could say just how Oyer had managed to do it.
Like the native people of New Guinea, Harvey E. Oyer III may be one of a diminishing tribe. Earnest, curious, intense, and learned, Oyer's a throwback to eminent Victorian gentleman scientists. He's a geeky hobbyist with prodigious, far-ranging interests: lawyer, historian, educator, cattle rancher, explorer, children's book author, civic leader, preservationist, advocate, archaeologist, ex-Marine. At 41, Oyer has already lived a brimming, Technicolored life. Handsome and solidly built, he's a regular in the society pages. He sits on dozens of boards. Oyer is a guy who delivers newborn calves in the barn at his 350-acre cattle ranch in Okeechobee County as easily as historical lectures to the Rotary Club. And he's inclined to list every calf and coffee klatch on his curriculum vitae.
He's as South Floridian as any gator or spoonbill. Five generations of Oyer's family have settled here. Great-Granduncle Charlie Pierce arrived as a boy of 8 in 1872 with his parents from Chicago and moved into an abandoned house in the scrubland south of Fort Pierce (the city named for a distant relative, Benjamin Pierce, brother of President Franklin Pierce). When Charles Pierce and his parents set up house, there wasn't another Caucasian living within 50 miles.
At one time, Oyer's great-great-grandparents owned the whole of Hypoluxo Island in central Palm Beach County. They built a thatched roof shack out of timbers from shipwrecks. These were the stories Harvey, the middle child, heard retold by aunts and grandparents while growing up in Boynton Beach in the '70s, when Harvey was a student at Atlantic High. They heard about Great-Granduncle Charlie working as one of the famous barefoot mailmen, hauling sacks of letters up and down the beaches. They pored over Uncle Charlie's book, Pioneer Life in Southeast Florida, a definitive history of the area's early settlers. Between working a paper route and helping to care for his bedridden mother, who'd been crippled in a car accident, Harvey inhaled his family's myths, its adventurous spirit, its sense of civic responsibility as easily as he breathed the humid Florida air.
Oyer's youthful walkabout netted him a master's degree in economics from Australia National University and a master's in archaeology from Cambridge. He endured a stint with the Marines and picked up a law degree from the University of Florida. He returned home to South Florida in 1999; he was just 31. He joined the prominent West Palm Beach firm Gunster Yoakley, specializing in large land transactions. With his young wife, Amy (the couple later divorced), Oyer purchased a rundown, two-story, historic, Colonial-style house in the Flamingo Park neighborhood — the place had no cooling, heating, or laundry facilities, but Oyer was delighted to find antique coins in the rafters.
At Gunster Yoakley, two of Oyer's biggest clients were brothers Jeffrey and David Lee. The Lee brothers were buying and selling huge tracts of land in Palm Beach and Martin counties. Oyer describes the Lees as salt-of-the-Earth types who'd been farming most of their lives. David was an ordained minister. "These were not guys living on a yacht," Oyer says. "They drove pickup trucks, sold land at a profit, and gave generously to charity. They were the most honest, decent people I've ever represented." Decent or not, the Lees would eventually land Oyer in a pile of grief.
While Oyer was working to help the Lees acquire property, he half stumbled upon what would become the defining project of his career. He began his new mission with a mysterious email blast to friends and colleagues. He told them he was holding an "urgent" meeting at the Rinker Playhouse. The message didn't reveal the reason for the gathering, but the invitation carried the endorsement of Florida congressmen Alcee Hastings and Mark Foley. A crowd filled the auditorium that night. Oyer pitched a passionate case.
Oyer explained to the crowd that the Palm Beach County Courthouse, built in 1916, had been wrapped in a brutally ugly shell in 1969 to provide extra office space. The old neoclassical courthouse, with its marble wainscoting, mosaic tile and wood floors, columns and capitals, was still in there somewhere, buried under layers of concrete. From the air over downtown West Palm Beach, you could see parts of the original courthouse roof. Nobody knew how much of the building was intact or if what was left was worth saving. With a gleaming new courthouse across the street, the old building was slated for demolition.
"The old courthouse is the only place in Palm Beach County that's relevant to every ethnic and racial group," he told his audience. "Young and old, black and white, rich and poor — everybody came through that building at one time or another, to get married, for jury duty, to pay a ticket or their property tax, to file a complaint or make a record search — whatever you had to do, it was the place you went.
"It would be a tragedy to tear it down," he concluded. "What is our identity? Who are we as a people? Buildings like this one can tell us."
The comprehensive plan needed an $18 million buy-in from the County Commission to pay for the restoration, but not all the commissioners were on board. Oyer lobbied hard to sell them on the project: "I had to win them over one by one," he says now. Commissioner Mary McCarty was a particularly hard sell. "I remember her actually screaming at me at one point," Oyer says of McCarty. The commissioner told him flatly: "I don't think the public wants this."
He needed Commissioner Tony Masilotti's vote too, and Masilotti wasn't much interested in the old courthouse. The two had worked together in the past during Oyer's work with the Lee brothers. Masilotti had also taken an interest in buying land in Palm Beach and Martin counties, and he'd purchased land from the Lees. He gave the Lees a $25,000 down payment on a 3,500-acre property called Nine Gems in Martin County, but the deal came with a stipulation: Masilotti wanted his ownership to remain a secret. Doing so meant that Masilotti could avoid reporting the deal to the IRS, violating federal tax laws.
In return for their cooperation, Masilotti helped the Lees by promoting county approvals on a slew of their properties. Masilotti pressured the diocese of Palm Beach to sell the Lees 50 acres, pushing through traffic approvals so the land could be developed.
Oyer denies that his desire to get Masilotti's support on the courthouse project convinced him to help the commissioner shield his ownership in the land. "There was never any overlap between those two projects," Oyer says emphatically.
In any case, Oyer got Masilotti's support. It came as Oyer launched an overwhelmingly popular grassroots project. He gave more than 500 public lectures on the subject of the courthouse and its place in county history. He engineered an educational campaign in Palm Beach County schools. He hired a former Tallahassee lobbyist, Kelly Laymen, to help build support. His efforts generated thousands of letters to the commission and led to a new requirement for fourth- and seventh-graders: a full semester of Florida history.
In April 2002, the Palm Beach County Commission voted 5-2 to fund the $18.5 million courthouse renovation. McCarty, who voted for it, snipped that lobbying for the project had been "over the top." Masilotti also voted yes.
On January 22, 2004, the day the demolition of the courthouse shell began with a public "unwrapping ceremony" complete with a line of dignitaries, McCarty swung a pickax at the walls. Masilotti was cracking away right alongside her.
As Masilotti and Oyer were posing together for photos at the old courthouse, holding flimsy mallets and pretending to whack away at its ugly concrete shell, they were also deeply engaged in another kind of shell game.
Masilotti had hired attorney Bill Boose to create a secret land trust, called the Crum Trust, whose beneficiary was Masilotti's wife, Susan. The trust concealed Masilotti's ownership stake in the Nine Gems property. Oyer, as the Lees' attorney, knew about the secret nature of the deal. The down payments Masilotti paid to the Lees had come from his own assets, but the final $98,000 check was written by Susan Masilotti from her personal account. Boose, who often lobbied the commission on land issues, had provided his legal services free.
Masilotti had a plan: He and the Lees were going to flip the property at a hefty profit to the South Florida Water Management District. And to get the Water District to purchase the land, Masilotti was going to lobby hard from his position as county commissioner. It was a clear breach of public trust — and Oyer knew all about it.
In July and August of 2003, Masilotti attended a series of commission and Water Management meetings where he voiced support for the Nine Gems sale without disclosing his own financial stake. But there was a hitch he hadn't foreseen. Just as the deal was about to go through, Masilotti learned that because the sale involved a public entity — the Water District — full ownership affidavits for the parcel were required. Those affidavits would uncover his ownership role and his conflict of interest.
In November 2003, apparently to hide Masilotti's interests, Oyer sent an email to the Water District, falsely stating that the Lees were the beneficiaries of the Crum Trust. But with years of subterfuge about to swirl down the drain, Masilotti concocted another plan. He and the Lees would make an exchange.
Four months later, Oyer, the Lees, Boose, and Masilotti got on an uncomfortable conference call. According to court records, Masilotti demanded that the Lee brothers trade him a parcel of 110 acres they owned in exchange for his interest in Nine Gems. The Lees were reluctant, but Masilotti agreed to sell them back their land at some future date. Still, Masilotti and Boose insisted that the Lees pay the closing costs on the exchange. They also stipulated that Masilotti would be able to hand-pick a prime piece of acreage to keep for himself when the Lees bought the land back from him.
It was petty blackmail. If the Lees didn't agree, Masilotti indicated he'd kill the Water District deal. The Lees agreed.
By April 2005, the deals had been finalized. Masilotti made a $1.7 million profit — in his wife's name. He and Susan split the money, and they divorced a few months later.
In 2006, then-Palm Beach Post reporter Tom Dubocq was leafing through Tony and Susan Masilotti's 2005 divorce settlement. Dubocq found mention of the "Crum Trust" among Susan's assets. None of the property held by Crum Trust was mentioned in Tony Masilotti's annual financial disclosures. Dubocq started digging, and the Post's investigation turned up evidence of the illegal deals.
The State Attorney's Office opened an investigation, and the FBI and IRS followed. Oyer, now at the zenith of his cultural, legal, and philanthropic work, was caught in the net.
To be fair, Oyer was only one of a half-dozen people Masilotti had ensnared in his shady land deals. The stain spread to Masilotti's ex-wife, Susan; his brother Paul; his lawyer, Boose; the Lees; developer Enrique Tomeau; and Wellington businessman Daniel Miteff, who was eventually named as a co-conspirator for a $50,000 bribe he'd paid the commissioner. Masilotti resigned from the commission in October 2006. In 2007, after more than a year of investigation, Miteff and Masilotti were each sentenced to five years in prison. Boose served 15 months and was released last June. The Lees received immunity for their cooperation. Paul Masilotti walked as a condition of his brother's plea deal.
Through it all, Oyer was never charged.
At Boose's sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Ryskamp publicly asked a question that many had wondered.
"For myself as a concerned citizen," Judge Ryskamp said, "it makes me wonder why nothing has been done with the Lees and Mr. Oyer." Federal prosecutors offered no answer.
Nor do they now. Department of Justice spokeswoman Alicia Valle declined to answer New Times' questions about why Oyer was never charged, saying simply that the office "does not comment on their charging decisions." A spokesperson for Ryskamp said the judge does not comment publicly on former cases. Prosecutor John Kastrenakes, now a Florida circuit court judge, also declined to comment.
Although he wasn't charged, Oyer resigned from Gunster Yoakley, where he'd been made partner three years earlier. Oyer had cooperated with the investigation, turning over reams of emails, faxes, and contracts. People said he'd fallen on his sword. Oyer bled profusely, but the wound wasn't fatal.
Oyer is sitting at the dining room table in the colonial house he bought ten years ago, late-afternoon light spilling through French doors. He's a full partner now with the West Palm law firm Shutts & Bowen. He's engaged to be married, and he's hip deep in a project to restore a historic African-American neighborhood to be called Mickens Village. Oyer's house is fully restored too, decorated austerely in traditional American antiques. Fresh flowers sit in all the vases; a baby grand piano takes up a corner of the sunroom. His fiancée's daughter, 10-year-old Francesca, is dressed in a sparkly ice-skating costume. She taps away at the piano keys.
Oyer has spread out a series of books and photos: The centennial edition of a history of Palm Beach County published by the Palm Beach Post; Pierce's Pioneer Life in Southeast Florida, and his own children's book, published in 2008, The Adventures of Charlie Pierce: The American Jungle. The illustration of young Charlie on the cover — windswept reddish-blond hair, blue eyes wide in curiosity or surprise — could be a picture of a younger Oyer.
In 2007, Oyer recalls, in the middle of the by-then very public federal investigation, he was invited to be keynote speaker at the grand opening of the refurbished old courthouse. He gestures to a photo of himself delivering the address, later published on the front page of the Palm Beach Post. "What you can't see in the picture," he says, "are the 600 people sitting in the audience. At the podium beside me were all the county commissioners. I had huge public support. Since then, I've been elected to directorships of the Red Cross, the Science Museum. I've received citizenship awards. I've been voted museum trustee of the year." This year, he was included in the 2010 edition of The Best Lawyers in America.
A Florida boy with deep roots, Oyer is a shiny cultural artifact in his own right. When the Masilotti scandal broke, Oyer had volunteered thousands of hours to charities. He'd saved the old courthouse. Even now, he says, sketching a map on a piece of scrap paper, he's involved in a deal to create a connecting swath of land between two Florida panther habitats, vastly increasing the animals' range and mobility. People in high places still speak well of him. Ask philanthropist George Elmore, County Commissioner Karen Marcus, Lantana Town Manager Mike Bornstein, publicist Carey O'Donnell. They all say the same thing: Harvey Oyer is an upright man, passionate and driven. He lives to serve his community.
How did his involvement in the Masilotti investigation affect his reputation?
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"If anything, my reputation was strengthened," Oyer muses. "It's a weird case where the community just refused to believe it. Life went on as usual."
He adamantly denies that his part in the deals helped win Masilotti's support for the courthouse. He says he won't comment on what may be an ongoing case but then says the affair is in the past — at once dismissing it as history and alluding to the possibility that others may still be under investigation.
Oyer would rather talk about his work on the old courthouse. "People were saying it couldn't be done," he says. "But there was a desire for leadership, someone to take the project in a new direction. I had this unique advantage in that I had ownership interest in this community. And I had skill sets from my archaeological and legal training. The historical fabric of this place gave me an opportunity and a position of authority. I had an unwavering idea: I simply had no vision of it ever failing."
Through a decade of public service, Oyer answered the same questions he'd raised the night he launched his campaign to save the courthouse: What is our identity? Who are we as a people? As it turned out, the identity we yearned for looked very much like Harvey Oyer.