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Inquiry clears Tampa port agency of wrongdoing

Fired in December from her $91,000-a-year job as the Tampa Port Authority finance director, Christine Bleich has blasted the public agency with allegations of mismanagement, money-wasting, favoritism and abuse of power by top executives.

In a whistle-blower complaint filed with the authority in February, she listed a dozen specific allegations of misconduct, all of which she said were raised with bosses before she was terminated.

Port director Richard Wainio has dismissed Bleich as a disgruntled, poor-performing employee. But he also hired an outside labor and employment expert to investigate the allegations.

After interviewing more than 50 current and former port authority employees and others connected with the port, Tampa attorney Gregory Hearing found no violations of law or ethics by agency officials, according to a report obtained by the Times.

In 15 months on the job, Bleich often clashed with the port's real estate and legal departments. Her allegations of wrongdoing by port officials, Hearing wrote, were merely disagreements about procedures and business decisions.

"There's nothing new in anything she said," Wainio said Friday. "These are issues we've dealt with ad nauseam. In most cases, they've already been resolved."

Bleich, 45, was disappointed with the findings, said Cynthia Sass, her attorney. Bleich had hoped to resolve the dispute directly with the port authority, Sass said, but now will fight the agency in court.

"There can be no doubt Miss Bleich's concerns were serious, as evidenced by the extensive — and no doubt expensive — investigation than ensued."

Port officials expect to pay Hearing about $25,000.

A common theme in Bleich's complaint was that port staff arbitrarily reduced fees or failed to collect debts from customers. One example she cited concerned the barge Oscar Renda, which anchored off Port Redwing near Apollo Beach during a hurricane threat in 2006 and stayed for a year.

When the port sent a $116,000 bill, its owner moved the barge and contested the charge. Officials discovered that the authority's fee rules didn't include a charge for vessels outside designated anchorage areas. Without a contract with the owner, the agency stood little chance of collecting, the port's legal department decided — a call that was "reasonable … and certainly did not involve malfeasance," Hearing wrote.

Bleich and other employees told Hearing that the authority paid for a $2,765 laptop for deputy port director Zelko Kirincich's personal use and for work on a computer at his home.

The laptop is port authority property, Hearing wrote. A computer contractor for the port did work on Kirincich's home computer for an hour or two, Hearing found. But he couldn't determine whether it was for Kirincich's personal benefit or the port's or whether the agency was ever billed.

Hearing also confirmed that the authority paid for a $839 coffee maker in Kirincich's office. The Whole Latte Love machine was authorized in 2003 by former port director George Williamson, who "was trying to cultivate a professional and polished image'' with business guests, Kirincich told Hearing.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Inquiry clears Tampa port agency of wrongdoing 10/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 17, 2008 5:59pm]
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