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Greco's legacy permanently stained by the dirt of LaBrake scandal

Published December 2, 2004

You have to wonder, if Dick Greco were still mayor of Tampa today, how he would be reacting to the federal corruption conviction of his former department head Steve LaBrake.

Maybe he'd be figuring out how LaBrake could keep drawing a city paycheck while doing time in Leavenworth. "Let's don't rush to judgment without knowing all the facts," he might say.

That would be consistent. Greco stuck by LaBrake year after year, ignoring every warning, blind to every revelation, refusing to listen to any evidence that his housing chief was - not to put too fine a point on it - a mutual-back-scratching crook.

For all Greco's successes and popularity as mayor, this will go down as his greatest failure. It would have been entirely fair for Wednesday's headlines to have declared: Guilty Verdicts in Greco Administration Scandal.

Greco could have fired LaBrake long before his federal indictment. But the most he ever did was give the guy extra paid vacation gussied up as a suspension. To Greco, the allegations were hyped up by a hypocritical, finger-pointing local media.

Why, Steve LaBrake was a decent man. The mayor knew so in his gut. Greco liked to tell an anecdote about how LaBrake had come to him during the investigation and broken down in tears. As if that made the bribe-taking part okay.

Greco took the whole LaBrake investigation personally. He convinced himself virtue was entirely on his side. Loyalty is what mattered. The outside world was cruel. The unfairness of it all was why good people don't get into public service any more. And so forth.

But it's not like this was a close call. Ever.

LaBrake was the city's housing chief. He was having an affair with his assistant (now his wife and convicted co-conspirator). Just for starters, I would say bosses having affairs with underlings on the public payroll would be a bad thing, but apparently not.

LaBrake handed out city contracts as part of his job. One contract recipient turned around and gave some of its money back to a company run by ... tah dah! LaBrake's girlfriend. Another instant firing offense, as well as a potential crime.

Here, I like this part. The outfit getting the city's money, the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, was supposed to be helping the poor. THAP paid $34,000 to a business the future Mrs. LaBrake was running on the side that provided gift baskets for new homeowners.

Gift baskets.

That was just for starters. THAP also bought out her lease on a Toyota 4Runner for $24,969 - and paid an additional $576 for the new tires on the car. I like that detail, too, paying extra for the tires. THAP even signed a $1,400-a-month lease for her other home in Riverview.

But the big enchilada was the 4,200-square-foot home that Steve and Lynne LaBrake built in South Tampa. THAP's chief, Chester Luney (also now convicted), used $22,000 of THAP money to move a concrete block home from the site to clear the way for the LaBrakes' new home.

The new house was built by another company that was getting contracts from the city through LaBrake, Ryan Construction. Ryan got 14 contracts from the city that paid more than normal. It also got a $30,000 check from THAP, for no apparent work.

Dean R. Ryan, president of the company, also was indicted. He was accused of building the LaBrakes' house for them below cost, of paying off Lynne LaBrake's credit-card debt, and of throwing a swimming pool into the deal. Nice. He took a plea and testified against the LaBrakes.

Almost all of these allegations were known before the federal indictment. Any single one of them could have, should have been a firing offense, or at the very least, a clanging alarm that Greco needed to change the ethical tone at City Hall.

But he never did. The mayor never figured out that if you are the boss of a man who is abusing the public till, you can still be his friend and you can still be loyal - but you also can shut the till. The legacy of Greco's loyalty was handed down by a federal jury this week in Tampa.

[Last modified December 2, 2004, 00:05:08]

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