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Hillsborough agency awarded funds without bids, contracts

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Published:   |   Updated: October 8, 2013 at 10:35 PM

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TAMPA — A Hillsborough County agency charged with helping poor people find jobs and housing paid public money to nonprofit groups without seeking bids or signing contracts — a violation of state and federal guidelines.

An internal investigation of the county Social Services Division also found several potential conflicts of interest in the agency’s business dealings, including a relationship with a non-profit group run by the husband of a manager in the division.

The violations and potential conflicts are the latest problems to surface in an agency whose director was fired last month for poor oversight of a homeless program. Three other Social Services managers have been fired over the past two months for poor performance or conflicts of interest.

The new revelations stem from an internal investigation, conducted in June, that found four nonprofits received money through the federal Community Service Block Grant program without competing through bids or signing contracts — two county procurement requirements that are designed to ensure scrutiny and accountability.

The internal investigation also turned up several potential conflicts of interest:

* A social services center manager referred clients to a nonprofit agency run by her husband.

*Two Social Services employees previously served on a citizen advisory board that make recommendations on block grant spending.

*The chair of the citizen advisory board also sat on the board of a nonprofit receiving block grant money.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which distributes the block grants to counties, is investigating the deals. The department notified its Office of Inspector General and is requesting more information from the county, said press secretary Jessica K. Sims.

“The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity ... takes allegations of this nature very seriously,” Sims said in an email.

One figure in the investigation is Ernest Coney Jr., chief operating officer of the nonprofit organization Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa. The agency, founded by Coney’s mother, provides job training, housing services and foreclosure-avoidance counseling for poor people.

The investigation showed the county paid $21,600 for a dozen students to participate in job training sessions at the Tampa Vocational Institute, a subsidiary of the Corporation to Develop Communities. According to the investigation, the 12 students were referred to the job training agency by Coney’s wife, Anika Coney.

That payment to the vocational institute — $1,800 a student — exceeded the $1,500-per-student cap in the county’s block grant agreement with the state.

Coney denies his wife played any part in the referrals.

“That’s not a true statement,” he said ,when told of the allegations in a telephone interview Monday.

Coney later sent an email saying local residents choose to attend the Tampa Vocational Institute on their own. The county government only determines if the clients are eligible to receive assistance, he wrote. “We are proud of our ability to train East Tampa residents and put them back to work through the TVI program over the past couple of years,” Coney said in the email. “TVI operates as the vendor to Hillsborough County and follows the rules and guidelines established regarding how funding is obtained from the county.”

Coney did not respond to follow-up phone calls or an email request.

Left unanswered is how Tampa Vocational Institute received payments without going through bidding or the county procurement process.

Venerria Thomas, the county’s director of Family and Aging Services, said Coney’s group will not be required to return the $3,600 overpayment.

It was not a request from Coney’s corporation “that would have prompted the payment. Essentially what we were able to do is use other fund sources for the payment.”

Thomas said the $1,800 payment per student was “reasonable and customary.”

“It’s just that the grant has restrictions,” she said. “So we were able to combine fund sources in order to pay what is owed to CDC for its services. It’s not unusual to use a combination of funds where that’s appropriate.”

Thomas said Anika Coney would not be disciplined because it was her manager, Artie Fryer, who told her to send the 12 students to the vocational institute run by her husband.

Fryer could not be reached for comment.

“We coached her about our expectations of her going forward,” Thomas said. “I wouldn’t call it a reprimand, but we coached her. ... If there is any question as to whether she should take particular action as it relates to anything regarding the CDC or TVI, she needs to consult with her management.”

Other potential conflicts found by the county investigator involved the Community Action Board, a county advisory board made up mainly of private citizens that oversees block grant funding by the county. The board’s chair, Heddie Sumpter, also served on the board of Coney’s Corporation to Develop Communities.

Sumpter has since resigned from the Corporation to Develop Communities board, Thomas said.

Also, two former members of the Community Action Board, Randy Vargas and Mary Dillon, later took jobs with Hillsborough County — Vargas with the Homeless Recovery Program and Dillon with Head Start.

“There were issues that needed to be addressed,” Thomas said. “We do have new leadership coming on board. I will make sure I work with them to make sure our policies and procedures are followed appropriately.”

County Administrator Mike Merrill said he believes many of the problems identified in the investigative report resulted from poor leadership. Fryer, the manager who is said to have told Anika Coney to send students to her husband’s nonprofit, was fired Sept. 13 for poor performance, according to county investigation documents.

“I think in the case of Artie Fryer that was clearly an individual who did not really exhibit good management and leadership,” Merrill said.

Fryer was one of four Social Services directors or managers fired in the past two months. The former division director, Sam Walthour, lost his job after it was revealed the division’s Homeless Recovery Program was referring hundreds of people to substandard housing. The manager of the homeless program was also fired.

Walthour did not return a phone call.

After the firings, Merrill asked for an internal audit of all housing assistance and homeless programs.

“Why that was allowed to continue for so long and whether that was fraud will hopefully be revealed by the audit,” he said

Merrill said he hired Walthour, former manager of the Miami-Dade County Solid Waste Department, in July 2012 hoping he would bring “fresh eyes” and a new perspective to Social Services. It didn’t work out.

Walthour’s replacement, Audrey Ziegler, will take over Social Services on Oct. 14, Merrill said. Ziegler had previously worked in the division but left to take a job with the Hillsborough County sheriff’s jail diversion program.

msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303

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