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THAP redirects reimbursement

Some government money intended to cover costs of housing HIV patients is used instead for renovations.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


Some government money intended to cover costs of housing HIV patients is used instead for renovations.

TAMPA -- Every month, the city cuts a check to the non-profit Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan intended to pay the costs of housing HIV patients and their families. Since last year, the city has given THAP $165,937 to rent a cluster of modest townhomes used in the program.

But THAP acknowledges spending a large chunk of that money to renovate its properties, despite consistently invoicing the city for "residential rent" costs.

The revelations emerge as the City Council, troubled by recent scandals surrounding THAP, is demanding greater scrutiny of the non-profit group. Last week, the city balked at giving THAP another $522,000 in federal funds for HIV housing before an audit was complete.

A Times investigation has found a curious financial setup in which grant money flows from one arm of THAP to another, making it difficult to pinpoint the destination of the dollars.

Michael Ruppal, who runs the non-profit's HIV-housing program, said the program asks the city for "rent" reimbursements because those dollars help THAP to pay the $15,000 tab its landlord charges to lease a compound of 32 townhomes in Sulphur Springs. The townhomes house 48 residents -- HIV patients and their families.

There is a connection between the HIV-housing program and the landlord, Coastal Bay Properties, which sets the rent: Both are run by the same man, THAP director Chester M. Luney.

Further, roughly a third of the Sulphur Springs townhomes have been consistently vacant while tax dollars have paid for them. Ruppal acknowledged that until recent weeks, people lived in only 22 of the 32 units.

In short, THAP collects rent on vacant properties and then pays itself. Now, with still only 25 occupied, THAP says it needs the $522,000 grant to fill the vacancies.

Council members said they were unaware of the connection between THAP and Coastal Bay. "It sounds awfully suspicious," said council member Linda Saul-Sena.

"It's very cozy, obviously," said council member Shawn Harrison. "I want to be sure we're not overpaying. If (THAP) were paying a totally third party, would they be paying less each month? We need to be sure we don't have all of the same players involved."

Harrison said he was informed by Fernando Noriega, the mayor's development administrator, that Luney was not involved in Coastal Bay Properties.

Noriega could not be reached for comment, and it was unclear why he had that impression. Luney's role at Coastal Bay is clear, however: On documents as recent as late last month, Luney had signed as the group's president and chief executive officer.

"If it was a family tree, it would go straight up. There would be no branches," councilman Bob Buckhorn said of THAP's structure.

Dave Snyder, assistant manager of the city's Community Redevelopment Division, said his office, which administers the grant, has been too short-staffed to carefully monitor the HIV-housing program.

Snyder said he was unsure how THAP arrived at the $6,000-$7,000 "residential rent" invoice the non-profit submits to the city each month. Yet it is Snyder's office that cuts checks to THAP in the requested amounts.

Snyder said the city's contract is with THAP, not Coastal Bay, and if Coastal Bay wants to use the money for repairs, "that's their decision."

Ruppal, who runs the HIV-housing program, said Coastal Bay uses much of the "rent" money it receives from THAP to recoup some of the $330,000 it spent to gut and renovate the Sulphur Springs townhomes, which had been in a ramshackle state. Under the federal program that funds the HIV program, Ruppal said, renovations are an allowable expense.

Still, it is unclear whether THAP is running afoul of federal guidelines, since the non-profit continues to invoice the city for "rent."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development would not comment.

In addition to the $450,000 in federal money it receives from the city for HIV-housing, THAP gets another $190,000 in federal funds through Hillsborough County. That program, SHAP, reimburses THAP for rent on each person the HIV program houses.

-- Times staff writer Christopher Goffard can be reached at 813-226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com. Staff writer Jeff Testerman contributed to this report.

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