DCF finds New Beginnings of Tampa properly allocated state funds back in 2008

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.”

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Sebastian Dortch joins Times Publishing Company’s board of directors

The Board of Directors of Times Publishing Company has named Sebastian Dortch as its newest member. Dortch, a 20-year Times employee, leads the company’s Human Resources Department and was instrumental in its recent acquisition of the Tampa Tribune.

“Sebastian brings rich experience, keen insights and extraordinary character to the Times board,” said Paul Tash, the Times chairman and chief executive. “First as a journalist and then as an executive, he has made our company better. As a fellow director, he will help broaden our perspective and elevate our discussions.”

Dortch, 53, said the appointment is exciting and sobering.

“The Times is by far the best organization that I’ve ever been a part of,” Dortch said. “To be asked to lead it at its highest levels, build on its rich legacy and preserve it so that it is here for many years to come is a high honor.”

Dortch started his career as a journalist and joined the Tampa Bay Times in 1996, where he coordinated local political coverage. He held several editing positions, including assistant metro editor, national editor and city editor. He became the company’s diversity officer in 2002 and joined the Human Resources Department two years later as its director. Before coming to the Times, Dortch worked at the Los Angeles Times, the Knoxville News-Sentinel and the Dayton Daily News. He is a graduate of Tennessee State University and completed the Advanced Executive Program at Northwestern University.

Dortch is a teaching elder at his church and enjoys reading, jiu-jitsu and chess. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife Sibyl. They have seven children, and a new grandson.

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Ben Diamond blasts Eric Lynn for not returning campaign contributions for his previous run for office

The gloves are starting to come off in the Pinellas County House District 68 race.

Ben Diamond is attacking his opponent in the Democratic primary, Eric Lynn, for failing to refund more than $50,000 in contributions he collected for his run for Congress in Florida’s 13th District, which he aborted earlier this year.

Lynn left the congressional race when his chances continued to look gloomy against the much-better-known Charlie Crist. Lynn then shifted the more than $700,000 he had raised to run for Congress over to a political committee created for his run for the state Legislature. Lynn said at the time that he had worked with officials in Tallahassee to make sure that everything he had done was legal.

But citing a state statute, Diamond says Lynn should have made an attempt to notify his donors, once he opted out of his race for Congress. “He said he would, but he never did,” Diamond says. “That’s not transparent. That’s the ‘Washington Way.'”

Lynn did not immediately contact those who contributed to his congressional campaign about a refund. After Alex Sink complained he hadn’t responded to her request for refund, Lynn told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board that he “can count on one hand the number of people who asked for their contributions back, and we sent them back.”

That’s in contrast to Gwen Graham, who sent a letter out to all of the contributors to her congressional re-election campaign after announcing she would not run again for election in Florida’s 2nd Congressional District. That led to 55 separate donors requesting a refund, for a total of $55,000.

(Update: A spokesman for Eric Lynn,  Dustin Lawrence, says that Lynn did contact all of his campaign contributors, and said only five people requested refunds. He also said Lynn had returned all general election checks as requested).

Diamond also repeated the charge his campaign made Tuesday that Lynn’s campaign has been making “negative polling calls smearing my years of work for Pinellas County.”

David Beattie, Lynn’s pollster, told FloridaPolitics Tuesday that both positive and negative information was provided in the polling he conducted last week. That poll showed Lynn up over Diamond by 12 percentage points, 39 percent to 27 percent. Beattie said Lynn’s lead increased after that additional information was given, though it was not reflected in the polling.

“That’s disappointing because it is not the kind of campaign Eric and I agreed to run,” Diamond says about what is sometimes called “push polling.” “In light of the fact that Eric appears to be using federal money from out-of-state donors to run for the state house, I guess that is just more of the ‘Washington Way.'”

“Launching a negative campaign is not the sign of a campaign that thinks it’s leading as Diamond’s campaign claimed with no proof and no credibility yesterday,” said Dustin Lawrence, Lynn’s campaign spokesman. “We had hoped that we could keep this campaign positive for Democrats, but unfortunately, Ben Diamond has not been able to resist the urge to run the kind of campaign he learned about in his time in Tallahassee. Eric is going to continue to focus on issues like the economy, education and women’s health, regardless of whether his opponent wants to use his Tallahassee tactics to sling mud at him and families here in St. Pete. When Eric worked for President Obama’s campaign and in his administration, he saw first-hand how politicians will do anything, including lie in personal attacks, in order to cling onto power. That’s not what voters in Pinellas deserve and it’s unfortunate and incredibly disappointing that that is the kind of campaign that Ben Diamond has decided to run.”

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Joe Henderson: Supporters of MaryEllen Elia now get chance for revenge at ballot box

Things really got nasty around the Hillsborough County School Board in early 2015. That’s when four of the seven members voted to fire Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

They didn’t like her brusque and dismissive style. They felt Elia believed the board worked for her, not vice versa. The move was, to understate matters, highly controversial.

Oh, who am I kidding? I can think of few things the board has ever done that created the stir that did. Those who voted in favor of termination were vilified by many business and political leaders.

They were called the Mean Girls (all four were women) and worse.

They were accused of pettiness and jealousy.

Even The Washington Post weighed in, calling the decision “senseless and catastrophic.”

And in a torrent of online comments and letters to the editor, Elia’s supporters promised vengeance at the ballot box (more on that in a minute).

Now is their chance.

Two of the members involved in Elia’s ouster are up for re-election Aug. 30, so that time of reckoning has come. You know what? It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if both were handily re-elected. That’s how badly I believe opponents misread what the Elia decision was all about.

Susan Valdes, who was chairwoman the night Elia was sacked, probably has the toughest fight. The Tampa Bay Times endorsed her opponent, Bill Person, noting his ability to “provide equal education opportunities across the entire district.”

That shouldn’t be dismissed. Voters often go to the polls with newspaper endorsements in hand for races where they might not be well-versed.

Valdes has a lot of friends, though, and has drawn praise for her efforts to improve opportunities for minorities. She has raised more than $35,000 in her re-election bid, more than three times the amount raised by Person.

Cindy Stuart is the other board member on the ballot now who voted against Elia. I honestly don’t see her spot in any danger. Stuart is just the kind of person who should be serving on the board — bright, inquisitive and fair-minded. She also has the Times’ endorsement.

Re-electing Valdes and Stuart would basically be the community’s final rebuke to those who argued that firing Elia would destroy Hillsborough schools.

Board member April Griffin, the most public and vocal Elia irritant, was overwhelmingly elected in November 2015 against a strong opponent. That’s the same election that brought in newcomer Sally Harris, who had promised to join the Elia opposition.

New superintendent Jeff Eakins has gone about methodically repairing much of the damage while dealing with a deep budget deficit driven largely by the school district’s commitment to a partnership program with Bill Gates long before he took over.

And Elia has more than landed on her feet. She took a job as State Commissioner of Education in New York.

We will soon know if those opposing her firing here can pull off the retribution they promised. Or, just maybe, there were just more people out there who thought it was a good idea.

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Mitch Perry Report for 7.14.16 – Patrick Murphy on defense, again

Political maxim #459 is “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

Let’s go to Patrick Murphy and his campaign for senate, shall we?

The Murphy camp is furiously shooting down a report by Alex Leary in the Tampa Bay Times published last night that said that his congressional office sought to delay news about relief for businesses affected by the toxic algae crisis so he could announce it at a news conference today.

Leary reported that an exchange of emails between Murphy’s office and the Small Business Administration “gives the impression Murphy wanted to take credit for the relief.”

Murphy’s office is denying the report, with a spokesman saying, “Of course our office did not request for this program to be delayed. Anyone who reads the original email can see that we did not. The official emails that Republicans are distributing to press intentionally leave out the Small Business Administration’s email to our office on Monday morning, which suggests no impending announcement.”

Murphy’s senate opponents pounced on the Leary report anyway, as you might imagine.

“Putting his own political fortunes in front of the needs of legitimate small business owners is stunningly shameless,” said Alan Grayson Senate campaign spokesman Michael Ceraso. “It’s also an abuse of his official power that needs to be immediately investigated.”

“Patrick Murphy should take full responsibility for this attempt to delay funds, resign his office immediately, and be fully investigated by the U.S. House Committee on Ethics for any other abuses of power,” said GOP Senate candidate Carlos Beruff. “These are the kind of Washington games that Floridians are sick of, and why the voters will clean house in Washington.”

This is another bad story in a series of bad weeks for Murphy and his chances of capturing the U.S. Senate this year.

Although his campaign team has forcefully refuted the allegations made by CBS 4 Miami reporter Jim DeFede that he exaggerated his resume and business experience in a two-part series last month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is running ads every day on cable news in Florida repeating those allegations, using material directly out of those reports.

And then there’s Marco Rubio. The Florida Republican’s decision to come back and run for re-election is proving to be a nightmare for the entire Democratic Party, as the hopes of taking the seat away from the Republicans seems to be slipping away everyday. A new Quinnipiac Poll released this morning shows Rubio leading both Murphy and Grayson by double digits.

Can the Jupiter Representative right his ship? It ain’t looking great at this point.

In other news..

Charlie Crist got an earful from some of his potential constituents, but he wanted in on Wednesday, asking 20 local small business men and women to tell their their issues and complaints that he says he hopes to address if elected to Congress this fall.

Polk County Republican Congressman Dennis Ross is calling for AG Loretta Lynch’s head, saying she needs to go for after watching her decline to explain the DOJ’s legal basis for not indicting Hillary Clinton for her email mess at the State Dept.

Darryl Rouson and Ed Narain had the most concrete plans in Tuesday night’s NAACP-sponsored Senate District 19 debate.

John Bolton’s super PAC (and his mustache) is contributing funds to Marco Rubio and Ron DeSantis’ reelection campaigns.

 

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Appreciation Day for Tampa Tribune staffers to be held this Sunday at Skipper’s Smokehouse

It’s been more than two months now since the Tampa Bay area became a one newspaper town, after the Tampa Bay Times purchased the Tampa Tribune and dissolved it on May 3.

A handful of Trib reporters were retained by the Times, and while a few others (Keith Morelli, Joe Henderson and Tom Jackson) have become contributors to SPB, many other staffers are still looking for work.

This coming Sunday, July 10, WMNF radio and Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa are putting on a tribute to the Tribune, which began operations in 1895. The event is called, “The Final Edition…Tribbers’ Appreciation Day.”

Three local bands – the Acme Jazz Garage, the Johnny G. Lyon Band and the Vodkanauts, will provide the entertainment. Acme Jazz Garage features Phllip Booth, who once wrote about music for the paper. The other two bands were identified as favorites of former Trib staffers, according to WMNF Program Director Randy Wynne.

Former film critic Bob Ross and TV critic Walt Belcher will serve as master of ceremonies.

The event starts at 5 p.m. Admission is $10, with former Tribune staffers getting in for free.  Wynne says that all the proceeds from the event, including from a raffle to be held, will go to the former Trib stafffers.

For more information, you can go the event’s Facebook page.

(This reporter hosts a weekly talk-show on WMNF).

 

 

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Tampa Bay Times investigative editor Chris Davis to join USA Today Network

Chris Davis, the deputy managing editor for investigations and data for the Tampa Bay Times for the past five yearsis moving to the USA Today Network, where he will lead investigative reporting stories at USA Today.

In his tenure with the Times, Davis led three Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting projects, including this year’s winner for Local Reporting for its “Failure Factories” series on how five once average St. Petersburg schools became some of the worst in all of Florida.

Davis also led the reporting that went into the joint effort between the Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune that won a 2016 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting for its year-long examination of Florida’s six primary mental health hospitals.

“We’re thrilled to add such a deeply experienced and talented team member of Chris’ caliber,” said USA TODAY NETWORK Chief Content Officer Joanne Lipman. “Having Chris on board demonstrates our ongoing dedication to deepening the level of our investigative capabilities NETWORK-wide and propelling them to new height

“I’m excited by the chance to join the USA TODAY NETWORK and help build on its commitment to strong journalism and deep investigative work,” Davis told the USA Today. “We have a unique opportunity to combine resources and to collaborate across multiple newsrooms to create groundbreaking, impactful reporting.”

Before joining the Times in 2011, David was an editor at the Herald-Tribune, he wrote or edited an additional two Pulitzer finalists plus the 2011 Investigative Reporting winner.

 

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Mitch Perry Report for 7.1.16 — The wheels of justice move excruciatingly slow

American celebrates its 240th birthday on Monday, and the 40th anniversary of the Bicentennial.

I was a relatively young kid who doesn’t have a whole lot of recollection of that particular day (other than our family was on vacation someplace in Northern California), but I certainly do remember the yearlong hype into that summer.

Two days ago in this space we commented on the length of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton‘s emails at the State Department, and what was up with the delay? The New York Times reports this morning that Attorney General Loretta Lynch will announce later today that she will not overrule her investigators whenever they finally produce their final verdict. That’s significant in that when the F.B.I. sought to bring felony charges against David Petraeus for mishandling classified information and lying about it, then Attorney General Eric Holder stepped in and reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. That won’t be happening this time, and how could it? After Lynch compromised herself by meeting up with Bill Clinton in an airplane on the tarmac in Phoenix earlier this week in an absolutely inappropriate get-together.

And get this; the paper reports that while the FBI is expected to make a recommendation to the DOJ “in the coming weeks, though agents have yet interview Mrs. Clinton.”

I don’t really get that at all.

Speaking of the criminal justice system moving at a molasses-like pace, Curtis Reeves Jr.’s trial on charges that he shot a man in a movie theater in Pasco County in 2014 will apparently not take place until next year. The 73-year-old former Tampa police officer continues to live the good life at home, and the Tampa Bay Times reports that Reeves will get to make his case that he acted in self-defense at a court hearing that will start Feb. 20, 2017.

Sorry, folks; I get how slow the justice system can work, and some people complain about convicted murderers being on death row for more than two decades, but this is absurd. Back in January, the FBI said they were doing analysis that would take another six weeks, and the state of Florida’s prosecutor said he had to yet to depose at the expert witness in the case. That’s two years into the case.

What are these people waiting for?

Meanwhile, regular readers might recall how engrossed I was after reading an excerpt of Gay Talese‘s new book in the New Yorker a few months ago. It’s a tale about a Colorado man who allegedly spied on guests at his Colorado motel from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s. Now, apparently, after The Washington Post noticed that this man lied about when he owned the motel, Talese appears to be running away from his entire book and its premise. Not good at all.

And that controversial abortion law sponsored by Lakeland Republican state Senator Kelli Stargel that would allow the state to contracting out with Planned Parenthood (for non-abortion services) and require 50 percent of all abortion clinic records to be reviewed by the state each year will not go into effect today.

Last night U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle blocked those parts of the law from going into effect while the case is argued or unless a higher court overturns his decision. The Times reports that he wrote in the opinion that he expects the defunding and record inspection provisions will likely be ruled unconstitutional.

Hinkle’s ruling simply blocks these parts of the law from going into effect while the case is argued or unless a higher court overturns his decision. He wrote in the opinion that he expects the defunding and record inspection provisions will likely be ruled unconstitutional.

Over 100 Bernie Sanders supporters have gone to court in Miami to sue Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the Democratic National Committee over what they say was a “rigged” primary system set up for Clinton to win.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine says he believes that the results from the UK’s ‘Brexit’ vote last week will adversely affect Florida’s tourism industry, but others don’t think so.

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco is backing Republican Shawn Harrison in the HD 63 race against Democrat Lisa Montelione. You’ll hear some hype that it’s another “D” crossing party lines to support Harrison, but when was the last time Greco endorsed a Democrat, anyway?

HD 59 Democratic candidate Rena Frazier gets the backing of Hillsborough County Commission Chair Les Miller and his wife, former Tampa City Councilwoman Gwen Miller.

And Rand Paul is endorsing former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino in the CD 19 race.

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Tampa Bay Times Mike Van Sickler named Government & Politics Editor

Michael Van Sickler, the talented Tampa Bay Times investigative reporter behind numerous must-read stories for more than a decade before moving into an editing position in 2015, has received a promotion.

The Cleveland native has been named Government & Politics Editor, replacing Jeff Harrington, who is returning to business reporting.

“I’m pretty excited about teaming up again with an incredibly talented Times/Herald staff as we enter the home stretch of the strangest political cycle in my lifetime,” he wrote to FloridaPolitics.com in an email.

“Hold on to your hat — we’re in for a wild ride.”

Van Sickler has reported and edited for the Times since 2003. He became an assistant metro editor for the paper in early 2015.

His reporting on the foreclosure crisis in the late aughts for the paper brought him to the attention of New Yorker reporter George Packer, who featured Van Sickler in several chapters of his 2013 book, “The Unwinding.”

Packard highlighted Van Sicker’s reporting about Sang-Min (Sonny) Kim, a house-flipper in Tampa who had colluded through a shell company in the flipping of more than 100 mostly abandoned properties around the city, and cleared more than $4 million in profit. That reporting led to Kim ultimately pleading guilty to money laundering and fraud charges.

If you’re trying to figure out the hierarchy of Times political editors, Amy Hollyfield is Deputy Managing Editor/Politics and Business, which oversees Political Editor Adam Smith and now Van Sickler.

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Mitch Perry Report for 6.22.16 – TBX showdown tonight

Our latest form of participatory democracy takes place in Tampa tonight, where scores of people will comment on whether or not the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization should include the Tampa Bay Express project in what is known as their Transportation Improvement Plan.

If past is prologue, the majority of speakers will be against the project, and the MPO will go ahead and approve the plan.

That’s what happened ten months ago on a very similar vote. Only one member of the MPO, Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco, opposed the plan, and 13 supported it. That was despite the fact that two other members of the Tampa City Council, who had voted against the plan while on the Council (acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency), approved it on the MPO.

So in analyzing if the votes have changed much over the past 10 months, you need to look at those on the board representing people in Tampa, since the opposition is greatest in the neighborhoods who will be directly affected by the construction of the project — in Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and V.M. Ybor.

Councilman Harry Cohen, perhaps realizing the inconsistency of his vote(s) last year, was the only member of the Council recently to resist opposing the TBX in a recent vote. Lisa Montelione (who is running for the state legislature this year) told me last week she could make a case for and against the project, leaving her vote in question.

County Commission Chair Les Miller has already declared his opposition, saying that the Florida Dept. of Transportation has failed in its outreach efforts with the community over the past year. County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who supported the project last August, could be a no vote this time around. He was seen at an anti-TBX rally in Ybor City a few months ago and is in a tough election battle for Hillsborough Clerk of the Courts.

But the other members of the MPO, who don’t represent Tampa on the board? It’s hard to see how many minds have been changed. The political/business establishment in this town is solidly pro-TBX, and the Tampa Bay Times editorial page weighed in for the project just the other day.

In a move which critics would say is worthy of the best extortionist sports owners, the DOT has threatened to take their billions of dollars earmarked for TBX elsewhere in the state if the MPO rejects the project, further emboldening the business establishment that it would be the send the wrong signal for the community to oppose it.

The meeting takes place tonight at 6 p.m. at the County Center in downtown Tampa.

In other news …

On the eve of the Hillsborough County MPO’s vote on the Tampa Bay Express Project, a new economic analysis says it would bring nearly 7,000 jobs to the greater Tampa Bay area.

Rick Baker chose not to run against Charlie Crist for Congress in Pinellas County, but he’ll help David Jolly, as he was named Jolly’s campaign manager yesterday.

Kimberly Overman is challenging Les Miller for the Democratic nomination for Hillsborough County District 3.

Alan Grayson will introduce a bill today in the House that would ban assault weapons in America. 

CD 15 Democratic candidate Jim Lange has blasted Dennis Ross for not mentioning the LGBT community in his post-Orlando comments.

Bob Buckhorn slams Donald Trump’s economic policy — at least the part The Donald has announced.

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