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    Is new house sweetheart of a deal?

    Building a house in South Tampa can be expensive, but a city employee's project is raising questions.

    [Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
    Lynne McCarter is paying about $30 per square foot to build this-4,200 square-foot home in South Tampa. The typical cost for homes in the area: $110 or more.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 28, 2001




    [WFTS Channel 28 News]
    Lynne McCarter, 31, top, is paying $120,000 to build a luxury home. She is a top assistant and girlfriend to city official Steve LaBrake.
    TAMPA -- Lynne McCarter's luxury home will have 4,200 square feet of space, four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a pool and a spa.

    Houses like that can sell for half-a-million dollars.

    She is paying a contractor a mere $120,000 to have hers built.

    McCarter, 31, is a top assistant -- and girlfriend -- to Steve LaBrake, who runs the city's business and community services department.

    The deal, first reported this week on WFTS-Ch. 28, has raised a number of troubling questions.

    The contractor, Dean Ryan of Ryan Construction, has received more than $1-million through LaBrake's department to build low-income housing in recent years.

    McCarter is paying the builder about $30 per square foot for the home at 3608 W Corona St. in South Tampa. Builders typically charge $110 or more per square foot for homes in that area, said Warren Weathers, the county's chief deputy property appraiser.

    "If the question were raised, "Does this sound like a very good deal?' my answer is, "Where do I sign up?' " Weathers said.

    McCarter could not be reached for comment Friday.

    LaBrake told the Times that he didn't have anything to do with McCarter's deal with the contractor. He said that Ryan Construction is being paid only to build the shell of the house and that McCarter is spending an additional $87,000 to finish it. Adding the $121,000 she paid for the land, he said, that brings her total cost to $328,000.

    "The cost is legitimate," LaBrake said. "Often the cost is not in (building) the space. The cost is the finish."

    The city's business and community services department oversees everything from building construction to zoning and inspections. LaBrake, 50, has taken a personal interest in McCarter's career over the years.

    McCarter, who started work for the city in 1989 as a clerk for the Community Redevelopment Agency making $6 an hour, now makes $55,723 a year as one of LaBrake's top aides.

    In a letter to the city's personnel department in 1994, LaBrake praised McCarter and urged that she be promoted from a loan counselor trainee to a full-fledged counselor, saying "few can match her work ethics, skills, or loyalty."

    Previously, as LaBrake noted, she had been rejected for the job because she lacked a formal education. She was pulled out of public school at age 14, home-schooled, and obtained a GED.

    LaBrake said Friday that she chose to raise a family rather than get a degree, and "although she lacks the education criteria as established," she exceeded the experience needed for the job "by leaps and bounds."

    Ryan, the builder, said LaBrake has taken an interest in McCarter's home.

    "He's been down there doing stuff, putting in plants and stuff," Ryan said. "He's come by a couple times and said, "Hi,' while we were framing."

    Ryan said he's not sure if he'll turn a profit on the house, but he hopes to.

    "You don't really know until you're done," he said.

    Ryan's relationship with LaBrake has been the subject of controversy before. In 1996, news reports revealed Ryan's construction company had received several city-related contracts to refurbish low-income homes without having to bid on the work.

    The city of Tampa's ethics code prohibits employees from having any personal financial dealings -- direct or indirect -- that conflicts with the proper discharge of their duties.

    What about the ethics of carrying on an affair with a subordinate?

    "I'm positive no city policy has been broken," LaBrake said.

    LaBrake's boss, Fernando Noriega, the city's administrator of development, said he was looking into the construction deal, but had not reached a conclusion about possible wrongdoing.

    "I want to know all the facts," he said.

    LaBrake is in the middle of a divorce from his wife of 27 years. McCarter was divorced from her husband in 1999. Her ex-husband, Scott, told the Times on Friday it was her affair with LaBrake that contributed to the breakup.

    Scott McCarter, 41, said his wife told him several years ago that she had been having an affair with LaBrake for years, starting when LaBrake drove her home from an office Christmas party in 1992.

    LaBrake declined to elaborate on his relationship with McCarter.

    "We have no intention of getting married or moving in" to the new house, LaBrake said. "I'm not saying I may not at some point."

    - Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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