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Advocate for poor resigns

The executive director of a St. Petersburg organization cites health problems.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN and RITA FARLOW
Published June 22, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG -- Sophie Sampson, longtime advocate for the poor and homeless, resigned suddenly this week as executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Sampson, 70, oversaw 24 employees, a food kitchen, thrift store, employment program, night-time housing shelter and an 88-bed transitional housing center named in her honor.

Earlier in the year, she focused much of her attention on helping homeless people who set up a tent city outside the society's Fifth Avenue headquarters.

In a resignation letter Tuesday, Sampson cited problems with her mental and physical health. She wrote that she was in the hospital and had been advised by her doctor to resign immediately.

"I regret this decision. I have enjoyed my position as executive director for those many years past," she wrote to the St. Vincent de Paul board. "But I cannot go on."

Sampson could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in her letter, she cites a report last fall by WFLA-TV investigative reporter Steve Andrews involving her handling of a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

A portion of the grant was intended for employment training, Andrews reported, but Sampson later applied for another grant to pay those same costs.

While reporting her resignation Thursday, WFLA said it had confirmed that the VA is still investigating.

In January, Sampson sued Andrews and the station, saying their report had implied that she defrauded the VA, which portrayed her in a false light.

"The unfounded accusations ... affected me severely," Sampson wrote in her resignation letter. "It has affected my health, mental well-being, my family and the society."

Pat Waltrich, the society's spokesman, said no grant money was misappropriated or mishandled. The entire grant was for renovating the vacant hospital building that now houses the society's programs, Waltrich said, and that's how the money was spent.

"She didn't do anything wrong," he said.

Sampson, a former nurse, oversaw society programs for years as president of the society's South Pinellas District Council, an unpaid position. For the last four years, she was paid to be executive director.

"Sophie has been a very valued employee," board president Richard Kubick said in a news release. "Both the board and the staff wish her all the best and hope and pray she will soon be well."

Sampson's attorney, James Eckert, said she went to the St. Anthony's emergency room four times in the last week with heart problems and depression.

"She's under a great deal of stress," Eckert said. "No more joking, no more kidding. She is miserable."

At City Hall, officials were surprised to hear Sampson had retired. But they were aware of the strain the last few years had put on her.

"She's a Mother Teresa," said City Council member Jamie Bennett, who serves on the county's homeless task force. "She absorbed the needs of the community more so than any other service provider."

When the city asked for more shelter space, she said yes, Bennett said. And when the city asked her to help more people, she said yes.

"She fought like a mother bear to get money for her cubs," he said. "She'll be very hard to replace."

Daystar Life Center in St. Petersburg serves many of the same clients as the society. Sampson's departure "is big news. She's been around for a long time," said Jane Trocheck Walker, executive director.

Walker said she hopes St. Vincent de Paul programs will not be disrupted. "There's absolutely no question that we need that program in the city," she said.

Natalie Rogers, 48, can vouch for that personally. She is homeless and was waiting Thursday for a dinner and shower at the Sophie Sampson Center of Hope.

"She's a very nice lady, very helpful," Rogers said. "We're all going to miss her."

Times staff writers Waveney Ann Moore and Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 22, 2007, 03:37:26]


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