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Housing lawyer invites scrutiny

Ricardo Gilmore's relationships with staff members, board members and vendors raise questions.

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000


TAMPA -- Attend a housing authority meeting in west central Florida and chances are you'll encounter a Tampa lawyer named Ricardo L. Gilmore.

Gilmore, 47, has served as general counsel for housing authorities in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Clearwater, Pinellas County, Lakeland, Orlando, Winter Park, DeLand and Avon Park.

Some of his clients consider him one of the brightest stars in housing authority circles.

"I think he's the best we have in Florida regarding public housing law," said Linda Hinkley, executive director of the Winter Park Housing Authority. "He doesn't come cheap, but he prepares well and he knows what the opposition is going to do."

Not all the reviews have been positive, though.

Gilmore's expert counsel has failed to keep some of his housing authority clients out of trouble with regulators and prosecutors. His billings have been called excessive. His cozy relationships with housing authority staffers, board members and vendors have raised conflict-of-interest questions. And his romantic involvement with a Tampa housing employee has raised eyebrows.

At the Tampa Housing Authority, executive director Audley Evans resigned after U.S. Housing and Urban Development issued a scathing audit. Evans, whom Gilmore represented personally before, during and after Evans' tenure, is the target of a federal grand jury investigation.

Gilmore's Tampa billing records are among the housing authority documents seized by the FBI at the outset of the federal inquiry two years ago.

"He's done a good job for us," said Evans' successor, Jerome Ryans. "But I think you need to keep an arm's length from the commissioners and the staff you represent."

Ryans was also wary of Gilmore's dating a housing authority department director. "It's not the best way to do business," Ryans said.

At the Sarasota Housing Authority, an administrator recommended by Gilmore and his firm added to a legacy that left the agency labeled "troubled" for four years. Accused of over-billing, Gilmore quit at the same meeting as the new administrator.

One Sarasota housing commissioner said she almost "went into orbit" over Gilmore's billings.

St. Petersburg Housing Authority officials last week received a HUD draft audit revealing significant problems, particularly in procurement practices, according to Nancy Cooper, district inspector general for HUD in Atlanta. Officials have refused to release the audit until it is complete.

Meanwhile, conflict of interest questions have been raised in St. Petersburg and in Tampa.

At a meeting of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority last month, Gilmore defended his private representation of Evans. He noted a 1980 Florida Attorney General's opinion saying independent contractors like himself are not prohibited from doing business with the commissioners he serves.

But Housing Authority Commissioner Paul Yingst questioned the appearance of a conflict of interest in that relationship. "My bell rings on this one," Yingst told fellow commissioners.

What Gilmore did not tell the authority members in St. Petersburg is that he also represents two for-profit companies owned by St. Petersburg Housing Authority Commissioner Lorian Williams.

HUD officials say those kind of relationships pose a problem.

"There are rules and regulations that talk about conflicts of interest and appearances of a conflict, and that is obviously one," Cooper said.

Gilmore is unruffled by the criticism.

He insists he has violated no ethics laws. He says he has "no concern" that his billing records have been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors. And he says he's not to blame for regulatory failures at housing authorities he serves.

"We work based on the assignments we are given," Gilmore said. "We only review what we are asked to review. We don't have blanket authority or blanket responsibility."

A 1978 graduate of the University of Florida Law School, Gilmore has been a partner with Salem, Saxon & Nielsen since April 1996. Before that, he was a partner with Morrison, Gilmore and Clark, a firm headed by Robert B. Morrison Jr., former executive assistant to Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez.

Gilmore took over for Morrison at the Sarasota Housing Authority after Morrison was suspended from practicing law in March 1996 for failing to pursue two civil actions.

Gilmore himself was a defendant in three malpractice actions filed in Tampa from 1992 to 1996, in which clients claimed their suits had not been pursued appropriately. Two were settled for a total of $75,000. In the third, a judge ordered the firm and its partners to pay the plaintiff $321,679.

Gilmore, who earned from $93,749 to $130,208 a year during his first three years at Salem, Saxon & Nielsen, lists a judgment of "$300,000-plus" in a statement of his finances in a pending divorce case.

He says he is still awaiting financial data from his old firm to allow him to complete federal income tax returns he has not filed in each of the past four years.

The Sarasota Housing Authority took Gilmore's recommendation to hire Rhonda Pierce in 1995. Formerly director of human relations at the Tampa Housing Authority, Pierce was lent to Sarasota and then hired as executive director at $68,000 a year.

Pierce lasted 17 months before quitting as her bosses prepared to fire her.

Later, HUD auditors found a host of problems: Every housing unit inspected for health and safety failed, $400,000 was unaccounted for, stacks of checks were left unmailed, rent checks were not deposited, morale plummeted because of "major conflicts" between Pierce and her staff.

"We were told she's a great gal; she has all this experience," former Sarasota Housing Authority Commissioner Jane Grossman recalled. "But she had no skills, no people skills at all."

Grossman questioned day-to-day expenditures by Pierce, as well as Gilmore's billings. She called Gilmore's bills "exceedingly high and unwarranted."

A major violation of HUD rules by Pierce, auditors said, involved a contract for a long-term, $1-a-year year lease allowing a $1.1-million Boys and Girls Club to be built on authority land. The deal put the authority in jeopardy of buying back the structure after the lease expired, HUD found.

Gilmore said he reviewed the contract but not its compliance with HUD rules.

During Pierce's last 12 months at Sarasota, the HUD program score used to measure housing agencies' effectiveness fell from 54 percent (under 60 designates a "troubled" agency) to 46.

Gilmore left the Sarasota Housing Authority the same day as Pierce. The authority first refused to pay Gilmore $16,400, and wound up paying half that.

Gilmore said he was "left in the dark" about the billing questions. He ultimately quit.

The Orlando Housing authority also questioned $94,327 in 1997 billings for Gilmore.

Orlando Housing Authority Commissioner Ron Pecora said his quarrel was as much with Executive Director Vivian Bryant, who attended law school with Gilmore. Pecora complained Bryant budgeted a fraction of the annual amount Gilmore billed.

"The former attorney billed less, I think," said Gilmore. His contract was renewed anyway.

Gilmore's firm billed the Tampa Housing Authority $261,186 for fiscal year 1999-00. Ryans called that "pretty reasonable."

"Some bills we don't pay, where he calls us and he initiates the call and puts it down," said Ryans.

Federal auditors blasted the Tampa Housing Authority's management, aiming their harshest criticism at Evans, Ryans' predecessor. The audit said Evans had set up a string of non-profit companies in which he became director, then used his dual positions at the authority and the non-profits to funnel $1.8-million into the private companies.

While earning $150,612 a year at the Housing Authority, Evans set up jobs at the non-profits, Tampa Housing Development Corp. and Meridian River Development Corp., each paying $75,000 a year.

Gilmore also simultaneously advised the authority and the non-profits. He later stopped representing the non-profits. "He didn't think there was a conflict, but he did resign," Ryans said.

Auditors highlighted a questionable deal involving a North Howard Avenue warehouse owned by businessman Huntley Burgher. Burgher bought the warehouse in 1991 for $90,000 and rented it to the housing authority for $2,468 a month. Two years later, Burgher sold the warehouse to Tampa Housing Development Corp. for $130,000, which rented it back to the authority for up to $5,000 a month.

Gilmore's former firm prepared papers for the warehouse sale, and Gilmore filed corporate papers for another Burgher company, B & B Painting, which won contracts from the authority.

The other non-profit, Meridian River Development, used the proceeds of a $12.25-million bond issue to buy apartments, but rented too few units to low-income residents to keep its tax exemption.

The grand jury was curious about the two non-profits and the two for-profit companies, said Evans' attorney, Arnold Levine.

Gilmore was the registered agent for the for-profit companies, Caribbean and Evans Consulting. Since Evans quit, Gilmore has filed papers for an Evans company, Business Finance Brokers.

Evans also consulted Gilmore on a real estate matter about six weeks ago. Gilmore declined to discuss specifics, citing attorney-client privilege.

Richard Salem, senior partner at Gilmore's firm, said Gilmore merely gave Evans free advice as a courtesy. The firm has since prohibited "that kind of communication" with Evans, Salem said.

From now on, the firm will look to HUD for guidance on conflict-of-interest rules, Salem added.

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