Report filled with ethics charges
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- The city forwarded a phone book-thick report to the state Ethics Commission on Wednesday, culminating an eight-week investigation into the city's housing chief, Steve LaBrake.
But it is a series of new revelations, not in the report, that Mayor Dick Greco said concern him most.
Those revelations, published this week in the Times, detailed how LaBrake used a wide range of favors from a nonprofit group to help build a luxury home in south Tampa.
"That is very distressing," Greco said. "I'm certain the people who are looking at this on the federal level will look at these things."
Since late July, Tampa's chief assistant city attorney, Gina Grimes, has been gathering information intended to help the state Ethics Commission decide whether LaBrake and Lynne McCarter, his girlfriend and top aide, violated ethics codes.
Among the key issues are whether the couple used their influence to obtain a bargain price on construction of the south Tampa house, and whether McCarter improperly profited by selling gift bags to Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, or THAP. Those questions are the subject of state and federal investigations.
Greco is asking the Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion. The city report released Wednesday cites codes that might have been violated, but draws no conclusions.
On the matter of the gift bags, for instance, the report cites the code forbidding employees of a city agency from having personal "contractual relationships" with people who do business with that agency.
The conclusion might seem self-evident: THAP, a nonprofit group that receives funds to build low-income housing through LaBrake's and McCarter's agency at the city, agreed to buy 250 gift bags from her personal business. McCarter pocketed the money.
But whether that amounts to an ethics violation could hinge, the city report suggests, on the specific branch of THAP that McCarter struck the contract with, and whether it received city dollars.
When THAP director Chester Luney signed the gift bags contract Nov. 1, he used the corporate name "THAP Realty, Inc."
But a Times investigation has found McCarter received payments for the gift bags not from THAP Realty Inc. but from THAP entities that rely on taxpayer funding, something not mentioned in the city's report.
Grimes, the investigator at the city attorney's office, said she did not ask for copies of the checks that paid for the gift bags. In determining whether the ethics code was violated, Grimes said, the source of the money is less important than the name on the contract.
"Who paid for them and who has a contractual obligation to pay for them are different things," Grimes said.
In the city report, LaBrake says he confirmed with Luney that the branch of THAP paying for the gift bags did not receive city funds. That contradicts the account of Luney, who told the city that LaBrake never asked about the source of the money.
Also in the report, LaBrake and McCarter say the cost of their south Tampa house is far more than the $105,000 they agreed to pay Ryan Construction to build the shell.
The couple claim to have spent $82,182 more on construction costs, and still owe $116,393 for additional work. Including the $120,000 price of the lot, that brings the total price of the property to $423,575.
LaBrake told the city he intended to do much of the work on the house himself before emergency heart surgery sidelined him.
The city attorney's office said LaBrake and McCarter did not supply receipts documenting the prices they claim.
Ryan Construction has received more than $1-million in contracts through LaBrake's department in recent years, and authorities are investigating whether that influenced the price he gave LaBrake and McCarter.
On Wednesday, Greco reiterated that he did not intend to fire LaBrake or McCarter.
"I'm not defending these people," Greco said. "I'm defending their right as Americans to have a hearing."
While Greco said he considers LaBrake's explanations about the price of the south Tampa house plausible, he is more concerned with reports in the Times this week of favors THAP did for LaBrake and McCarter.
Those included Luney, the THAP director, signing a blind lease on one of McCarter's properties so she could obtain a loan on the luxury house, and Luney arranging to have a pool pit dug behind the house for free.
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Mary Jo Melone