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Challenger's business practices come under criticism

By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Republican candidate for state House District 55 is facing accusations that he failed to pay employees of his temporary staffing agency who were hired to conduct an important state health survey.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Republican candidate for state House District 55 is facing accusations that he failed to pay employees of his temporary staffing agency who were hired to conduct an important state health survey.

New Frontier Temporaries and Staffing, owned by Vincent K. Hopkins, won a contract in September to supply 15 temporary workers to a research firm to help with a $1-million telephone survey on individuals' health habits.

But the research firm, Opinion Research Corp. Macro International, canceled the contract this month, saying Hopkins failed to provide the workers he promised.

"That firm was not able to supply enough people for those hours and according to the terms of notification in the contract we notified them that the contract was up," said Jim Daniels, an ORC spokesman.

Some former employees say Hopkins repeatedly deflected questions about payroll and failed to inform them that the agency's contract had been canceled Hopkins, who is challenging state Rep. Frank Peterman Jr., D-St. Petersburg, in Tuesday's election, put the contract's value at $40,000.

Joy Stapleton, a former New Frontier employee, said she was promised $11 an hour for a telemarketing job, but was told after she started that it paid only $8 when a new agency took over the contract. She worked for nearly a month without pay, then Hopkins' firm cut her a check that bounced, she said.

"I was furious," Stapleton, 47, said. "There's no way someone like this has the gall to run for public office."

Hopkins, 40, said he asked his office manager to inform the New Frontier employees working at ORC that the contract, which involved a survey for the state Department of Health, had been canceled on Oct. 10. Hopkins, who left St. Petersburg to visit his wife for several weeks in Detroit around the time the contract was canceled, acknowledged he had difficulty. He blamed the failed deal on a lack of cash flow.

"I feel terrible. Meeting payroll is one of the most challenging things I've had to do," Hopkins said.

He also said he had trouble finding enough qualified employees to meet the contract's requirements.

On Friday, Hopkins' office manager told Stapleton and other employees to meet at a local restaurant where they were given their checks. But some still say Hopkins didn't pay them for all the hours they worked.

"It was all disorganized. I know he still owes me money," said Linda Watson, a former New Frontier employee.

This is not the first time Hopkins' business dealings have been questioned. In March 2000, officials with the St. Petersburg Area Black Chamber of Commerce said Hopkins mishandled funds when he worked as executive director of the group. The dispute was eventually settled the same year.

When the race for House District 55 began, Hopkins did what most candidates do: He visited churches, knocked on doors and debated his opponent. Now some key Pinellas County political players say Hopkins' recent problems point to a lack of political acumen.

Paul Bedinghaus, the chairman of Pinellas County's Republican Party, said he was unimpressed by Hopkins' platform and lackluster campaign.

"I'm not going to try to get a quarter-million dollars behind a candidate that admits at the outset that they're not going to win," Bedinghaus said.

Hopkins has raised about $600, according to online election records. Peterman, the incumbent, has raised more than $50,000 in political contributions.

Peterman has waged a vigorous campaign, canvassing neighborhoods in the district, which includes southern St. Petersburg, and portions of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties. He said despite Hopkins' recent problems he thinks the Republican's campaign is sincere, if misguided.

"I think Vincent just has a flawed perspective as it relates to this community and District 55," Peterman said.

Also on the ballot in the race is Libertarian Thomas Kilmon.

Throughout the campaign, Hopkins has been especially critical of African-American politicians such as Peterman and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. In a Sept. 30 letter to Welch, Hopkins accused the commissioner of being "an enemy to black businesses."

Hopkins said he would run against Welch in the next countywide election and chided the commissioner for focusing too much on north Pinellas communities and not enough on "south St. Pete."

"You should focus on making this a better place to live. Those crackers don't care about you or us. If you had to run County Wide you wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning," Hopkins wrote.

"It just seems like sour grapes on Vince's part," Welch said. Welch said he continues to be an advocate for minorities and all members of his district.

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