A state investigation of New Beginnings of Tampa has found that the organization DID in fact properly allocate state housing funds for the construction of housing units in Tampa back in 2008.
The report by the Department of Children and Families was the second such investigation by a government agency to clear the group in as many years. In February 2015, the Department of Labor found the organization did not violate labor laws when it put its homeless clients to work without pay.
Both investigations were spurred by a report by the Tampa Bay Times in late November of 2014.
Shortly after that story broke, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner called on Congresswoman Kathy Castor for help in getting the federal government to investigate New Beginnings. The Times reported that, for years, New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison had sent his unpaid homeless labor crews to Tampa Bay Rays, Lightning and Bucs games, the Daytona 500 and the Florida State Fair. The paper reported that “homeless advocates and labor lawyers call it exploitative, and possibly illegal.”
At the same time Beckner was calling on the feds to investigate, Mike Carroll, head of the Florida Department of Children and Families, submitted a request for the department’s Inspector General to investigate whether Atchison may have misused $80,000 of Homeless Housing Assistance funding from a $360,178 contract the group signed with the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative to construct transitional housing for youth that had transitioned out of foster care. Carroll’s action was prompted by a section of the story by reporter Will Hobson that said “a New Beginnings contractor told the Times he over-billed the state for at least $80,000 of grant money, then gave the money to the program instead of returning it.”
According to the Inspector General’s report, Atchison wrote a check for $40,000 to Site Manger Earl “Butch” McPhillips on May 7, 2007, for construction costs previously reimbursed by the management of the Tampa/Hillsborough Homeless Initiative. Atchison wrote another $40,000 check to McPhillips on June 8, 2007 for additional construction costs. In both cases, McPhillips then returned the checks to New Beginnings as donations. Atchison confirmed to the Inspector General that he had not notified the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative that McPhillips had returned the funds as donations, a decision he said he regretted doing, as it would have avoided the appearance of impropriety.
The report says that the money donated by McPhillips was subsequently used to cover the costs of upgrades to the interior of the housing unit. McPhillips told the IG he gave the money back to New Beginnings because the charity had “saved his life,” having been addicted to crack cocaine for 20 years until he was helped by the organization, and continues to donate his time to the group.
Although the report was completed months ago, it was just sent to New Beginnings of Tampa on Tuesday.
When contacted Wednesday afternoon, Atchison said that the series of stories by the Times “had hurt us really bad financially,” and estimates that the organization probably lost several hundred thousand dollars, mainly because the Department of Veterans Affairs had to put their funding on hold until the Department of Labor completed its investigation.
Since they were cleared, the VA National Center on Homelessness among Veterans awarded New Beginnings an eight-month Safe Haven contract administered through the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital last year.
Atchison remains bitter about the Times reporting, saying, “Their goal was to get me in jail or prison — get New Beginnings shut down and look like the hero of the day — you know, that we brought down the big evil giant of Tampa and that would win them a Pulitzer.” He says he has not ruled out suing the paper, though he appears to be leaning against doing so.
Jennifer Osi, the Times managing editor, told SPB, “Our work speaks for itself and we have no other comment.”