tampabay.com

LaBrakes' cost for dream home: 'Guilty'

Steve LaBrake and his wife, Lynne, are convicted of more than 25 counts each.

By GRAHAM BRINK
Published December 1, 2004


TAMPA - In the end, it was their dream of a luxury South Tampa home that brought them down.

Steve LaBrake was the powerful head of the city's housing department. Lynne McCarter was his assistant and his girlfriend. They were having an affair. A baby was on the way.

Their troubles began after news stories raised suspicions that LaBrake was using his position to get free and discounted construction work on the home.

On Tuesday, as the judge read off guilty count after guilty count, LaBrake reached over to McCarter, now his wife, and clasped her hand. They sat in silence, chins held high, even with prison a distinct possibility.

The federal jury decided that LaBrake was corrupt, the taker of bribes, a public official who handed out millions of dollars in housing contracts for personal gain. The LaBrakes were convicted of more than 25 counts each - conspiracy, wire fraud and more than two dozen charges of accepting bribes and gratuities.

The jury also convicted Chester Luney, the former head of the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, a nonprofit charity that received many home building contracts from LaBrake's office.

The sobs from Luney's supporters grew louder with the reading of each of 20 guilty verdicts. His wife needed help leaving the courtroom.

"I prayed so hard," she told him through her sobs. "I prayed so hard."

Prosecutor Robert O'Neill said the verdicts sends a message that public officials should not abuse their positions for personal gain.

"This is a serious crime that undermines our system of government," he said. "One day I might need a home or you might need a home, but the program won't be there because of corruption like this."

The fourth defendant, University of South Florida credit union loan officer Lori Horne, was acquitted of the two charges she faced.

Upon hearing the not guilty verdicts, Horne immediately hugged her lawyer, Marcelino Huerta, hanging on to him tightly as tears formed in her eyes.

Huerta said Horne was a courageous woman who put her liberty on the line to go to trial.

"She never wanted to discuss a plea," Huerta said. "She hadn't done anything wrong."

LaBrake strode out of the courthouse past a throng of reporters, his trademark shock of disheveled gray hair further mussed by the wind. Normally gregarious, LaBrake and his wife declined to comment. Luney and his lawyer, Lee Fugate, also left without answering questions.

The LaBrakes and Luney remained free on bail pending their sentencings in February. Federal sentencing guidelines can be convoluted. O'Neill was not sure the range of sentence each defendant faced.

Wire fraud alone, for instance, comes with a 20-year maximum, though none of the defendants are expected to get a sentence nearly that stiff on that charge.

During the monthlong trial, the LaBrakes remained upbeat, often talking with reporters about how they were holding up. LaBrake joked with his lawyer in the hour before the verdict came down. At one point, he was humming a tune as he walked down the window-lined hallway on the 15th-floor of the federal courthouse.

From that vantage point, he could see many of the projects he helped put together for the city during his tenure in the housing department.

LaBrake had a reputation for getting things done. But he admitted he had a temper and was willing to play the bully to get what he wanted out of the city's bureaucracy.

"I would take that job for free if I could get it again," he told jurors when he testified in his own defense.

The case centered on one of LaBrakes more personal projects: the 4,200-square-foot dream home that he and his then-girlfriend began building in early 2001.

Mrs. LaBrake, then Lynne McCarter, secured a $230,000 loan from the University of South Florida credit union to pay construction costs and to buy the property on Corona Street in South Tampa.

Lori Horne helped her secure the loan. Five years earlier, the LaBrakes helped Horne purchase a modest home at 215 W Marham Ave. with a city-backed loan. Horne was a mother of two children and a $20,000-a-year loan officer, who qualified for housing assistance under city housing guidelines.

The indictment painted a picture of the LaBrakes doing a series of favors for Horne related to the home, including okaying a loan to build a swimming pool. In return, Horne helped green light their $230,000 loan to build the luxury home, according to the indictment.

The jury, though, did not believe Horne did anything criminal. Her bosses testified that Horne lacked the authority to okay the loan for the LaBrakes. The bank president signed off on the loan.

At the time, Mrs. LaBrake, a $55,723-a-year city employee, had a financial statement that was marginal at best. A divorced mother of one, she was already legally responsible for mortgages totaling $275,000.

But she got the new loan, with some help from Luney and THAP.

THAP provided medical and housing services to the poor. The nonprofit depended on big contracts from the city, many of them controlled by LaBrake.

Luney agreed to pay Mrs. LaBrake's company, So, What's the Occasion?, $34,000 to provide gift baskets for new homeowners.

THAP then agreed to buy out her lease on a Toyota 4Runner for $24,969. THAP paid an additional $576 more for new tires she had just put on the car, in effect paying for the tires twice, O'Neill said.

Luney also signed a $1,400-a-month lease for Mrs. LaBrake's other home at 10834 Peppersong Drive in Riverview.

O'Neill, the prosecutor, called the lease a "sham" to help improve Mrs. LaBrake's credit statement.

Luney also used THAP money to pay $22,000 to Atlas Structural Movers to move a concrete block home from the property on Corona Avenue to make room for the 4,200-square-foot home.

All these favors, O'Neill argued during the trial, amounted to bribes and illegal gratuities.

LaBrake was desperate for financial help, O'Neill said. He was going through an expensive divorce with his first wife. At one point, he lived in another home he was building, even though it had no utilities, electricity or air conditioning.

Sometimes he slept in his car or at work. He was paying four mortgages, two on a Davis Islands home and two on a Morrison Avenue home where his estranged wife lived. LaBrake had tapped dry his retirement funds.

While jousting with O'Neill from the witness stand, LaBrake said he still made $106,000 a year from the city. Though, he added, that he could "barely keep a checkbook."

The conspiracy continued when Ryan Construction began building the dream home on the cleared lot.

Dean R. Ryan, president of the company at the time, was accused of building the home for below market cost. He was indicted along with the LaBrakes, Luney and Horne. Just before the trial began, Ryan pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy to defraud the government, admitting that he paid to build the LaBrakes' pool and more than $13,000 toward Lynne LaBrake's credit card debt.

As Ryan was pouring the foundation, federally backed contracts were pouring into the company. His company received 14 contracts from the city that paid $3,000 more than contracts for similar work. He also received a $30,000 check from THAP, for no apparent work.

As the house was going up, news broke about the sweetheart deal to build the luxury home. For months, the LaBrakes found themselves on the evening news and in local newspapers. They repeatedly professed their innocence, as did Ryan and Luney.

After the scandal became public, LaBrake was put on probation at his job and eventually fired. He opened a real estate company. Lynne LaBrake opted for early retirement from the city. They eventually sold the home for $480,000.

The LaBrakes are in serious debt today, with tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid credit card charges, they said.

On Tuesday, Mrs. LaBrake's frustration boiled over when WFTS-Ch. 28 news reporter Robin Guess approached them for a comment after the verdict. Guess first reported on the suspicious house deal.

"No way, Robin," Mrs. LaBrake screamed as she walked up. "Get out of my face."

A courthouse employee prevented Guess from getting on the same elevator as the LaBrakes.

The couple took the ride down on their own, hand in hand.

Graham Brink can be reached at 813 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com