A peek at billionaire Harry Sargeant III, a somewhat mysterious figure in FL GOP circles and elsewhere

September 27, 2020 7:00 am

Harry Sargeant III. Credit: Attorney Chris Kise of Tallahassee.

For years,  Florida energy billionaire Harry Sargeant III has been a somewhat mysterious figure who surfaces from time to time in Republican political circles.

A graduate of Florida State University and fraternity brother of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, St. Petersburg developer Brent Sembler and other notable Pi Kappa Alpha brothers at the university, Sargeant is a former marine fighter pilot who has donated more than a million dollars to athletic programs, the business school and his old fraternity.

A plaque at the Pike House describes him as “the most powerful man no one knows.’’

Sargeant, a resident of Gulf Stream, a tiny exclusive town in Palm Beach County, has often been a financial benefactor to GOP candidates and Republicans in trouble with the law, such as former GOP Chairman Jim Greer. He has also provided airplanes for Crist and other Republicans as they traveled the state for campaigns.

Sargeant is also something of a citizen of the world. He was sued by the brother of the King of Jordan in Palm Beach who won a $28.8-million verdict for being cut out of a $1.4-billion defense contract that allowed Sargeant to transport fuel through Jordan to American troops in Iraq. He has pursued oil and asphalt and marine deals in some of the most dangerous places in the world.

Sargeant has also gained some fame in the investigations swirling around President Donald Trump.

News stories published earlier this year suggest Sargeant met with Trump at Mar-A-Lago and was involved in Ukraine business affairs with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Soviet born businessmen who worked with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on back channel efforts to tarnish former Vice President Joe Biden.

Sargeant, in a written statement, denied any involvement in the Ukraine affair.

He did recall an informal dinner with Parnas and Fruman at an energy trade show in Houston in March 2019, but said there was no Ukraine deal. He said he has never visited Mar-a-Lago.

Last week, Sargeant Marine Inc., a family owned company run by his father, mother and two brothers, was indicted in New York on charges of bribing officials in Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador.

The company has admitted guilt and agreed to pay a $16.6-million fine. His brother, Daniel Sargeant, has also pleaded guilty and been released on $300,000 bail pending sentencing.

Federal prosecutors in New York say the company paid millions of dollars in bribes to foreign officials in the three countries to obtain contracts for the purchase or sale of asphalt to state owned or controlled oil companies.  The payments were made between 2010 and 2018.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt said the charges against Sargeant Marine’s illegal schemes are part of an effort to hold companies and their executives responsible for international corruption.

Harry III was not involved in the business, although he owns several  energy and marine  businesses.

For several years he has been at odds with other family members, particularly his brothers. The entire family was embroiled in a long-running bitter series of lawsuits that ended with a 2015 bankruptcy settlement.

Harry III walked away with a cool $56-million. In return he gave up any claim to ownership of Sargeant Marine and other family companies.

There were 14 different lawsuits in several states in addition to the bankruptcy.

The lawsuits produced salacious testimony that could only arise in a vicious dispute between millionaires.

Harry III accused his brother Daniel of spending millions on his sons’ pursuits of race car driving and other ventures. Meanwhile, Daniel accused Sargeant III of being a spendthrift on things such as a $7.5-million mansion, private jets and exotic cars.

There were allegations of sex tapes and accusations that Harry III’s telephone messages were stolen.

Harry III’s longtime lawyer, Chris Kise of Tallahassee, explained the situation surrounding the lawsuits Friday, saying Harry III went his separate way in the early 2000’s, with his own asphalt, marine and oil companies and was not involved in the businesses his father and brothers were operating.

The settlement of the lawsuits and bankruptcy case have helped heal old wounds between some of the family members, Kise said.

And Harry III, a tough ex-Marine fighter pilot, now 62 years old, has spent the last six months struggling to recover from COVID-19. He spent much of it in the hospital on a ventilator and artificial lung.

“His doctors can’t figure out which drug helped, Kise said, because the only thing they didn’t do was put bleach in his veins.”

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.