Jailed official demands pension

Steve LaBrake writes a nasty letter to the Tampa pension board.

By JANET ZINK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 23, 2007

TAMPA -- Already, Steve LaBrake has lost his city job and is serving time in federal prison over a corruption scandal.

On Friday, a city board will consider revoking the disgraced former housing director's $18,500-a-year pension -- almost entirely funded by taxpayers.

That, apparently, is more than LaBrake can take.

In a nine-page letter teeming with anger and defiance, he hurled choice words at his perceived tormentors: despicable, malicious, incompetent, inept.

Corrupt, even.

An unrepentant LaBrake, who was convicted of bribery, conspiracy and wire fraud, wrote the letter after he was notified of the hearing.

"This is a despicable and malicious act of renigging on an employment 'contract' with two of the best and most productive employees the city of Tampa was ever fortunate enough to employ," LaBrake wrote, referring to himself and his wife, Lynne, who was his aide. The misspelling is in the original text.

The city also wants to refuse Lynne LaBrake her pension benefits, which would be around $2,500 a year.

She's also doing prison time for her role in the larger scandal, which involved directing lucrative city contracts to a nonprofit agency and private contractor who helped the LaBrakes build a South Tampa luxury home at a bargain basement price.

City officials have made arrangements for the pair to participate in Friday's hearings -- his is at 9 a.m., hers at 1 p.m. -- via telephone.

Letter to save pension becomes a tirade

In his letter, LaBrake maintains he is innocent, lambastes the media for its unfair portrayal of him and calls the current city housing program inept.

He said he will prove in a lawsuit his claims that city officials violated ethics laws and acted "with prejudice" to destroy his career and ruin him financially.

He also accuses former City Council member Mary Alvarez and another former city official of "such broad actions of corruption that I don't even dare to start listing all of them because it starts to involve dozens of current and past city employees." He provided no information to support his allegations.

The letter is signed:

"With conviction, Steven LaBrake, Prisoner 41604-018."

Alvarez responded that LaBrake is an evil and disgruntled former employee who got caught doing something he shouldn't have done.

"I don't know what's he's talking about unless he's talking about my hairdos," she said.

Alvarez said she has nothing to be ashamed of.

"I'd love to see him face to face talking about these things, because I'd slap him across the face so hard I'd make his eyeballs fall out," she said.

Lawyer to recommend denying LaBrakes

City officials began proceedings more than a year ago to yank the LaBrakes' pension benefits.

State law says public employees convicted of certain crimes, including embezzlement or theft of public funds and some felonies, must forfeit their rights to any public retirement system.

Kelly Chanfrau, an outside attorney handling the matter for the city, said she will recommend that the board deny the LaBrakes their pensions. But the law gives the city's pension board the final say. Chanfrau believes a simple majority is all that's required. If LaBrake loses, the law says he can appeal in court.

The seven-member board is composed of mayoral appointees, the city's finance director and city employees elected by pension plan participants.

John Tapley, a mayoral appointee on the board, said the law seems to make it clear that the LaBrakes should not receive their pensions.

"That's the way it appears to me, but until we have the hearing you never know what will come up," he said.

LaBrake could collect pension in 2013

Steve LaBrake left his job with the city in 2002 after more than 16 years, service that could entitle him to a pension when he turns 62 in 2013. Lynne LaBrake left her job in January 2003 after 14 years. She does not qualify for the payments until 2034, when she turns 62.

Steve LaBrake is in a federal prison camp in Pensacola and scheduled for release in September 2009. Lynne LaBrake is in Coleman Federal Correctional Complex and is scheduled for release in June.

In his letter, LaBrake blasts the prison mail service and complains he hasn't spoken to his wife in two years. He also jabs at the bureaucracy that asked him to respond to the hearing notice and provide his address and phone number:

"Believe it or not, we do not have phones."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.