County official's ties raise questions
By BILL VARIAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- The Alliance for Affordable Housing started out like many of its clients: It got help from Hillsborough County government.
Eight years later, the private non-profit company is the county's primary tool assisting first-time homebuyers, helping more than 3,000 low-income families buy homes.
Kevin McConnell oversaw the county office that channeled $13.6-million in state and federal grants to the alliance until he was demoted earlier this year.
McConnell also has unusual ties to the company that have been examined in recent weeks as part of an internal county inquiry.
McConnell's wife works for the alliance. The best man at their wedding last year runs the company, earning $120,000 a year. And McConnell's brother performed several appraisals for home purchases handled by the group.
The alliance got the grants without competitive bids and had not until recently commissioned required audits of their books.
County officials found nothing improper.
"I really don't feel there is any evidence of wrongdoing," said Assistant County Administrator Anthony Shoemaker, McConnell's supervisor. He said the county "may have to look at doing a more careful analysis of the relationship with the alliance."
McConnell, former director of the Department of Community Improvement, waited until he married last fall to formally declare the conflict with his wife, records show. He said he declared the conflict orally when he began dating her last spring and removed himself from overseeing the company.
He said he has known Michael Morina, the alliance president and his best man, for 20 years but said their relationship did not affect funding decisions.
And he said he didn't know his brother worked on home purchases enabled by grant money, saying private mortgage lenders choose appraisers.
McConnell, 48, was demoted in April after checking into alcohol rehab. He is now a contracts manager in the Water Department. The demotion was aimed at giving him a less stressful job and unrelated to his relationship with the alliance, Shoemaker said.
In an interview last week, McConnell denied any improprieties involving the alliance.
His demotion came after his wife, Linda, filed for a domestic injunction after McConnell put a gun to his head during a drunken argument at their home.
"There's no secret I drank to excess," said McConnell. "I'm sure I've made errors in judgment. But I have done nothing wrong."
He continues to draw a salary of $91,104, though he is scheduled for a hearing today during which his pay is recommended to be cut to $57,533, the maximum for his new position.
Questions about McConnell's ties to the alliance surfaced after he left the department where he worked for 16 years. A week before, employee Linda Mandell filed a grievance.
She alleged a hostile work environment, claiming retaliation for asking too many questions about grant money. Among her questions: Why the alliance's books haven't been audited in six years when annual audits are required.
Other employees told human resources investigator Debra Garrison they feared retaliation if they answered her questions, her interview notes show.
But several of the employees said they were discouraged from raising questions about compliance with state and federal rules by grant recipients. A handful specifically cited the alliance, noting it didn't have to competitively bid for money, and said if they pressed their concerns they were disparaged and denied access to files.
McConnell and interim director Don Shea blame complaints on a few disgruntled employees. Garrison, however, found 16 of 28 employees complaining of hostile working conditions.
Shea said the investigation found no evidence of fraud. And the missing audits should have been picked up by some of the same employees raising it as an issue now, he said. Audits have since been performed and no irregularities were found. Shea said competitive bids aren't required, anyone can apply for the money and that few do.
"I cannot make any excuses for or even justify any relationship between Mr. McConnell and that organization," said Shea, a candidate to permanently replace McConnell. "But if spending a lot of money on an organization that does well is favoritism, then yes, there's been favoritism."
The alliance was actually birthed at County Center. Under McConnell, the county allowed fledgling non-profits to use county phones and office space to get established, and county staff taught them the ropes about state and federal regulations.
In walked Morina, who worked with McConnell for the city of Tampa for two years. He established the Alliance for Affordable Housing, with little funding the first two years.
The alliance's biggest effort is providing down payment assistance -- typically about $5,000 -- for first-time homebuyers. The company is reimbursed with state grant money.
Morina said the company succeeded through hard work, not special treatment.
"Appearance is one thing," Morina said. "But we have done nothing improper."
County records indicate Mrs. McConnell joined the alliance in 1997. McConnell said they began dating in early 2000 and married in August last year.
Morina said her duties were changed after the marriage. She no longer handles any aspect of the business involving county funds.
Mrs. McConnell was paid $59,048 in 1999, records show, for loan processing work.
And Morina said he had no idea McConnell's brother Michael handled any appraisals for alliance transactions until a month ago. He said the company works with several lenders, who hire appraisers. Records show Michael McConnell was hired at least 60 times from late 1999 to early 2001 and paid $300 for each appraisal.
Michael McConnell said he has been estranged from his brother until recent months and was hired by lenders.
While Morina is frustrated with the inquiries, they may continue. County Administrator Dan Kleman met with attorney J. Michael Shea, who represents employees with concerns about compliance with state and federal guidelines by the Community Improvement Department.
McConnell said he doesn't understand the zeal with which his former employees are voicing the accusations.
"I've offended some people I'm sure," he said. "When the time is right, with the people I know I've offended, I will apologize. It's part of the recovery."
- Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or email@example.com.
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