TAMPA — The Tampa Housing Authority thought it had seen the last of the Siltek Group when in July it fired the contractor building a signature $25.6 million mid-rise apartment block on the edge of downtown Tampa.
The Tempo at Encore was behind schedule and had fallen prey to shoddy workmanship and poor management, said Housing Authority officials. And Siltek owner Ana Silveira-Sierra continued to let her husband, Rene Sierra, work as project manager even after he had pleaded guilty in a multi-million dollar kickback scheme involving affordable housing in South Florida.
So Housing Authority officials were outraged to learn that Berkley Surety Group, the firm that underwrote the project, has hired a new company owned by Silveira-Sierra to finish the seven-story building.
Officially Berkley has contracted with Tron Construction. But records show that the firm was established by Silveira-Sierra less than one month after Siltek was terminated from the Tempo project and operates out of the same Plantation office.
It means that completion of the 203-unit building intended to provide affordable housing will effectively be in the hands of the same developer that the Housing Authority and its development partner, Banc of America Community Development Corp., are suing for botching construction.
Housing Authority attorney Felix Rodriguez expressed frustration at Berkley's decision in an October letter. He said the underwriting agreement gives the New Jersey firm the right to choose its own contractor.
"The Housing Authority was extremely disappointed with the surety's selection," he said. "We can't do anything about it without losing our rights to surety."
The letter sent to Berkley by Rodriguez put it more bluntly: "In short, the owner has no confidence in Siltek's or Tron's ability to complete the job."
Silveira-Sierra declined to comment on the selection of her new firm.
The decision to go back to the same developer is likely about protecting the bottom line, said Jack Neu, a surety bonding specialist with Nielson, Wojtowicz, Neu & Associates.
"If they brought in someone new, that entity would have to investigate everything that was put in place previously," Neu said.
Still, he expects Berkley to keep close tabs on Tron's work.
Originally scheduled to open fall 2016, Tempo is part of a 28-acre, $450 million mixed-income housing development replacing Central Park Village. It will include public housing and market-priced apartments.
The development partnership opted to fire Siltek with the project about 80 percent complete, stating in a letter to the firm that it was not employing enough construction workers or complying with inspectors. Siltek had also created an adversarial relationship with its subcontractors, the letter stated.
Among other problems, drywall had been installed before the building had been closed off to rain, said Housing Authority chief operating officer Leroy Moore. After Siltek was fired, some drywall had to be removed because of dampness.
Housing Authority officials were also concerned that Silveira-Sierra's husband was still involved in Tempo even after he admitted to federal investigators that he conspired with Miami developers to inflate construction costs to earn additional federal tax credits and grants through his company, Siltek Affordable Housing.
Sierra was officially removed from the project, but Housing Authority emails show that he returned to Tampa to work as project manager on Tempo.
In December, he was sentenced to three years of probation including six months of home detention with electronic monitoring. He was also ordered to repay $1.2 million to the government.
Tempo, which was partly funded through a Choice Neighborhood Grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is unlikely to be finished until at least the summer, said Rodriguez, the Housing Authority attorney.
But after sitting vacant for months, the construction site is now bustling with about 60 workers each day.
The Housing Authority and its development partner still have $6 million on hand to pay for the remainder of the work. No money will be released until they are satisfied that the building has been completed to spec, said Moore.
"If they don't perform, we now have the bigger fish, the surety company, on the line," he said. "I'm confident that it will be finished the way it should be."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.