St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Greco let blind loyalty cloud his civic duty

I wouldn't prejudge anybody, but we're not going to tolerate any wrongdoing. There are questions that have to be answered. - Dick Greco, then mayor of Tampa, 2001

HOWARD TROXLER
Published November 21, 2003

Good words from the former mayor. But he tolerated it, after all.

Dick Greco stood up there and repeatedly defended the scandal that happened on his watch. It will be part of his legacy, a stain on the good things he did.

It was never that tough a question.

It is not okay for city department heads who hand out millions of the public's money to take favors from, nor have houses built by, nor get free swimming pools dug by, the recipients of those public contracts.

The least that can be said is that it is an instant firing offense.

In addition, when federal money is involved, such dealings between contract awarders and contract recipients might even be a violation of Title 18 of the United States Code.

That's exactly what a grand jury alleged in an indictment announced Thursday. Of course, it will take the courts to decide whether the criminal law was violated.

But few of the underlying facts listed in the 40-page indictment came as a shock. Almost all of them had been previously revealed.

It's funny, in a ripped-off-taxpayer kind of way, to be reminded of the $125-a-pop "gift baskets" that one of LaBrake's contract recipients bought from Lynne McCarter, the woman who went from being LaBrake's underling to his wife.

McCarter had started her own gift-basket and bag business called "So, What's the Occasion?" LaBrake's contract recipient bought something like $38,000 worth. A tisket, a tasket, a back-scratch with baskets.

That basket buyer was Chet Luney, now a co-defendant with LaBrake and McCarter. Luney ran the agency called Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan Inc., or THAP, which got all kinds of government contracts. He also bought McCarter's Toyota 4Runner for just under $25,000, and (my favorite detail), paid her an extra $576.34 for the tires.

But the big-ticket item involving LaBrake and McCarter was their dream house. Lynne wanted to build a 4,200-square-foot house in South Tampa, not a small house, and not an inexpensive neighborhood.

Luney cleared the way, both literally and figuratively. He used his agency for a $22,000 contract to move an existing house sitting on the lot. He also agreed to lease McCarter's previous house for $1,400 a month to help her get the bank loan. He arranged for a swimming pool to be dug, free.

As for building the new house, LaBrake and McCarter reached a deal with a builder named Dean R. Ryan - you got it, another recipient of public contracts from LaBrake. Ryan, too, is a co-defendant now.

Again, most of this is known fact.

So why did the mayor stubbornly stick with LaBrake?

Who knows? He was, as they say, unavailable for comment. Not even some of Greco's friends understood his defense of his man.

Call it a seriously misplaced sense of loyalty. The mayor was sickened by all the TV lights and notebooks chasing his man LaBrake. It got into his gut. He identified with being on the receiving end of a media frenzy. He personalized it.

In Greco's mind, he was practicing the courageous, lonely virtue of loyalty in a cruel and faithless age. He hinted darkly, more than once, that the reporters who were chasing LaBrake's scandal were hypocrites who had their own, you know, secrets.

Greco came to see himself as standing courageously against a snake-nest of persecutors. He told the anecdote, over and over, of how LaBrake had come to see him and broken down and cried. The mayor seemed to think that upon hearing that anecdote, the listener should agree that it was okay for LaBrake to have taken things of value from the recipients of the contracts he awarded.

On this issue, Greco forgot entirely why he was elected and who elected him. He was elected by people who paid their taxes to the government, whether they liked it or not, because the government had the power to take their home and throw them in prison if they didn't pay. That is whose money LaBrake was handing out to contractors who in turn bought his wife's baskets, and dug his swimming pool, and built his house.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.