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Woes didn't stop THAP perks

Benefits for top officials included the use of credit cards and vehicles, and many of their relatives are on the payroll.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 9, 2001


TAMPA -- While the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan struggled to make ends meet in its mission to serve the needy, the nonprofit agency's top executives enjoyed handsome perks, including expense accounts, bonuses and company cars.

Former THAP boss Chester M. Luney and chief executive officer Lynn Knox used THAP's American Express cards to charge thousands of dollars a month, much of it for meals at local restaurants, according to records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.

In one three-week period last year, Luney and Knox rang up $973.35 in meal charges, including Knox's $102.42 bill at Spaghetti Warehouse and Luney's $92.66 bill at Houlihan's. In the following month, Luney charged another $699.41 for meals.

Both executives were afforded the use of sport utility vehicles, with Luney permitted to spend up to $45,000 for his. Both had the use of cellular phones.

THAP's board also authorized its top executive to purchase four season tickets for the Tampa Bay Bucs, two season tickets for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and two season tickets to the Tampa Bay Lightning, according to THAP's official policies and procedures.

Those policies also permit THAP staffers and spouses to be reimbursed for up to $100 per day for meals at out-of-town conferences. By contrast, county employees follow state guidelines for and can be reimbursed for no more than $21 a day ($3 for breakfast, $6 for lunch and $12 for dinner).

Luney, who is at the center of two federal investigations that have jeopardized the future of THAP, was paid a $5,000 bonus by the nonprofit last year.

The check was written in June, just three months before THAP received a letter from the IRS saying the organization was delinquent in paying $24,700 in payroll taxes. The IRS notice also asked for $4,392 in penalty interest on the amount owed.

At the Tampa United Methodist Centers, a competing nonprofit, employees are eligible for 1 percent bonuses this year but receive no other perks, said executive director Louis Jones.

THAP's top executives also saw relatives and in-laws placed on the payroll of the nonprofit companies that comprise the THAP group.

In one case, one of Luney's sisters was hired despite a criminal conviction for grand theft for using a victim's ID card to withdraw hundreds of dollars from a credit union account.

The sister, Deborah Langhorne, was given a job as a counselor and was permitted to live in an apartment in a THAP complex reserved for homeless veterans. Last year, Langhorne was listed as a program deputy director at THAP, with a salary of $35,000 a year.

The perks amazed one THAP critic. "You've got to be kidding," said County Commissioner Jan Platt. "No wonder they can't get an audit of their finances done."

THAP's inability to produce an independent audit prompted the county last week to cancel $798,064 in contracts to THAP for services to residents who have AIDS or are HIV-positive.

The city of Tampa, which last month stepped in and paid $17,500 in interest on a THAP mortgage on a former cigar factory building, is considering canceling $522,000 in contracts with THAP, also related to AIDS services.

"It appears their priority has been going to the top staff (at THAP)," said Platt. "That's what's so sad about it.

"Their underlying mission is to help the needy. But their resources are being diverted. The needy are the losers."

Founded in 1986, THAP established a reputation as one of the leading African-American-directed nonprofit agencies in Florida. The agency specializes in building and renovating homes and in providing health services to low-income residents. Recently, THAP has branched out into the development of a small-business incubator, the purchase of a shopping center and the lease of an adult living facility.

But a harsh spotlight was thrown on THAP after news reports that Luney had lent his resources and THAP's money to an effort by Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake and his aide and fiancee, Lynne McCarter, to build a 4,200-square-foot dream home in South Tampa for a fraction of the normal cost.

A federal grand jury is now investigating the LaBrake/McCarter house deal.

Other federal investigators from the Inspector General's Office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are conducting an inquiry into Luney's role at the VA. As an $80,279-a-year VA psychologist, Luney wrote grants that funneled federal money to THAP, which operated a homeless shelter for veterans and where Luney was paid $78,000 a year as the part-time CEO.

After discovering a series of problems at THAP's Veterans Village shelter, the VA froze $1.25-million in grants approved for THAP.

Luney abruptly quit his VA job in October after the Times sought records concerning THAP's VA grant applications.

Last week, Luney suddenly resigned his post at THAP, a move THAP founder James A. Hammond described as being in the best interest of the nonprofit.

Later, in response to questions by the Times about the perks Luney and others enjoyed, Hammond pledged to adopt a new code of ethics that would put THAP beyond reproach.

"I want to be sure no one can criticize anything we do," Hammond said.

He said he would review all policies relating to credit card use, travel, bonuses and nepotism. He added that having relatives on the payroll would generally not be prohibited if one did not supervise another.

Luney actually has two sisters working at THAP: Langhorne and Phyllis Cook, a vice president for THAP's Synergy Health.

Luney's son-in-law, Kevin Jackson, is a real estate broker at THAP Homes, the company that gave a lucrative gift basket contract to McCarter, helping enable her to qualify for a $230,000 mortgage on her and LaBrake's dream home.

CEO Knox's daughter, Aundreia L. Knox, is listed as a $28,995-a-year asset manager for THAP Homes, according to divorce records.

Knox's husband, Levi N. Knox, is employed by Carteret Management and is the manager of the HUD-subsidized Oakhurst Square Apartments owned by THAP.

Carl Klein is the father of THAP vice president Denise Klein and is paid $360 every two weeks by the nonprofit, records show.

Carl Klein, 88, is a retired municipal judge from New Jersey. He is listed as the registered agent on several THAP corporations but told the Times he does not practice law in Florida and provides no legal advice to the nonprofits.

Klein declined to discuss what service he does provide and was critical of newspaper coverage of Luney.

"Through his efforts, many people have gotten affordable housing," Klein said. "'I won't help you with any character assassination."

-- Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

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