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Program has support - of founder

Published April 18, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - State Sen. Gary Siplin's anger shocked the normally congenial process.

The target of Siplin's fury, Tom Pelham, was expected to breeze through Senate confirmation as head of the Department of Community Affairs.

But Siplin wouldn't drop this. He was incensed that the state canceled funding to a program that gave summer jobs to kids from around his Orlando district. After two meetings with Pelham, Siplin used the public hearing last week to criticize the in-coming secretary's response as lackluster.

"Can you tell this body what gives you the power to change your mind when this body gave you instruction over how this money should be spent?" Siplin asked Pelham from his seat on the Senate Committee on Community Affairs.

Pelham, on the defensive, pointed out all this transpired before his appointment by the governor Jan. 8. The committee delayed voting on his confirmation until today.

But here's what Siplin didn't say in that heated moment: He didn't explain that he founded the program in question, Professional Opportunities Program, or POPS, in 2001, securing state funding two years later. He didn't say that his childhood friend runs the organization.

And he didn't say his law firm and Senate office were among the companies that employed POPS kids during the summer for $7 an hour, a wage paid by the state.

Siplin did not respond to several requests for an interview this week.

Ethical questions

Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, a POPS advocate, said he sees no inherent conflict of interest in Siplin turning to the POPS program to help with summer staffing at his law office. "That's what the program is about - trying to get kids to see professionals at work," Hill said.

But Ben Wilcox, director of Common Cause Florida, a political watchdog, is more ambivalent. On one hand, Siplin is supporting a program that gives students exposure to a professional workplace environment. It's hard to object to that.

"On the other side of the coin," Wilcox said, "the perception is that he created a program that uses state money to fund free employees for his office. ... If you're trying to avoid conflicts of interest, you try to avoid appearances of conflicts of interest as well."

Senate President Ken Pruitt said he would defer to the state Ethics Commission, which reviews matters only when a complaint is filed.

Siplin is no stranger to allegations of using his office for personal gain. He is currently appealing a felony conviction on an unrelated charge that he used tax dollars to pay staffers on his 2004 re-election campaign.

"This is a regular course of business (for him)," said Ken Lewis, the Orange County prosecutor who led the case against Siplin. Lewis said he would "love" to look into POPS.


The POPS program hit a critical moment last summer. In fiscal 2004 and 2005 the legislature appropriated $400,000 in its budget for a program that fit POPS's description: "community-based outreach programs for inner-city high schools to promote higher graduation rates, higher attendance rates, dropout prevention and a decrease in juvenile crimes."

But as the program began planning for the summer 2006 program, Esrone McDaniels, DCA's new director of the Office of Urban Opportunity, discovered what he described as numerous inconsistencies in the Orlando program's budget. Spending was not well-documented.

Instead of sending POPS the $400,000 it had received in prior budgets, DCA decided to send only $150,000. In addition, McDaniels said POPS got only half of that money to start. The remaining $75,000 would be released only after POPS provided records showing how it had spent the initial payment.

McDaniels said POPS failed. A resulting audit by DCA's inspector general showed the program turned in time sheets for more than 185 students, when DCA had approved hiring only 22.

In week four of last year's summer program, with more than 100 teenagers employed by at least 82 companies and public agencies, POPS announced to its students it would be pulling the plug.

To this day, dozens of students have not been paid for the last two weeks they worked. The state has promised it will pay for it another way.

"Before that happened, I liked the job," said Antionette Tillman, 17, who worked in Siplin's law office last summer, answering phones, typing and assisting Siplin's wife. "But if I didn't get paid for it, why did I do it?"

Tillman says she got a W-2 showing she received wages she never did.

A similar program

POPS board chairman Walter Hawkins, a childhood buddy of Siplin's who said both he and the senator benefited from a similar professional jobs program when they were young, blames the program's demise on a misunderstanding.

Hawkins says the reason kids were not paid is because the state decided to withhold the rest of its funding. But McDaniels says even if POPS hired more students than the contract allowed for, the $75,000 it sent should have covered payroll for all the students for the period in question.

DCA is gearing up to provide a program similar to POPS on a statewide level, extended to 200 students in 20 communities at a cost of $2,500 per student.

Pelham's confirmation is likely to be approved in the Senate committee today. Hill will vote for him, though he still wants DCA to preserve Siplin's POPS program rather than replace it.

"They haven't stopped any other members' programs from going through," Hill said. "And they shouldn't stop this one."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.


State Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando

Age: 52

Family: Married, four children

Political: Elected to the Florida Senate in 2002 after two years in the state House

Professional: lawyer

[Last modified April 18, 2007, 02:20:06]

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