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Beckner defends himself against accusations

BY JOHN BARRY

TAMPA — Six weeks before the elections, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner finds himself double-teamed by two opponents — Margaret Iuculano, his official Republican challenger, and David Campo, a developer consultant and serial political e-mailer.

They don't call themselves allies. But both are flinging accusations of cronyism and incompetence.

Beckner calls Campo an old foe attempting to settle scores from four years ago when Beckner defeated then-commissioner Brian Blair.

Says Campo: "It's not payback, it's not a vendetta, though I understand why he feels that way."

Beckner calls Iuculano a conservative extremist who lumps him with Nancy Pelosi as an enemy of capitalism intent on turning Hillsborough County into "a bastion of liberalism." She says she's been an advocate for children since growing up in 15 foster homes.

Recent e-mails from Campo have focused on Beckner's past three years on the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, an agency whose CEO was recently forced out amid reports of questionable spending, no-bid contracts totaling $450,000, and a dysfunctional workplace.

Campo hasn't stopped there. He also has complained to the Florida Elections Commission that several of Beckner's campaign donors gave more than the state's $500 limit on contributions. And on Friday, he accused Beckner of a conflict of interest by also serving on the board of Hillsborough Kids Healthcare Inc., which once received a $10,000 grant from the Children's Board.

Kids Healthcare's executive director, Steve Freedman, said Beckner never voted on the grant. It was handled administratively, he said, and was used to pay for an audit the agency needed in order to win federal grants.

But Campo has had plenty more to say. E-mailing Beckner, Campo wrote:

"The way I see it, you sat on the Children's Board for 3 1/2 years and said nothing while millions were spent on bloated administration and illegal no-bid contracts that had nothing to do with helping children. ... Then at the exact same time the scandal becomes public, you hire one of the recipients of those illegal no-bid contracts to be your aide, who happens to be the roommate of another recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars in no-bid contracts."

On her web site, Iuculano hammered the same idea:

"Dozens of print and online articles have exposed Beckner's mismanagement of 'hundreds of thousands of dollars awarded to associates outside of the fair bidding process,' with Beckner pointing the blame on the CEO and taking no responsibility for his lack of oversight."

Beckner says the two are accusing him of violating spending policies that never existed and feeding money to people he didn't know.

The accusations refer to two women who once lived together and who each won contracts for services from the Children's Board.

One was Kelly Hickman, whose production company, Bamboo Kazoo, won Children's Board contracts totaling $201,825 over six years. Her actual billings during that period totaled less than her contracts, or just under $131,500. She earned $25 an hour except video editing, which drew a $50 hourly rate.

The other was Renee Warmack, a former Children's Board staffer, whose own company won a $37,350 contract in 2008 to shoot a documentary about the board and to manage events. In 2010, Warmack also got a $1,200 contract for promoting and managing a series of board workshops.

Beckner hired Warmack in April as a legislative aide. He said he didn't know Warmack before she was one of 160 people to apply for the $65,000-a-year job in his office.

He said he hadn't known Kelly Hickman either when he joined the Children's Board in 2009.

The board's procurement policies allowed chief executive officer Luanne Panacek to approve contracts or renew them without bids or the board's authorization if any of them fell under $75,000.

All of the contracts for Warmack and Hickman, the commissioner said, fell below the $75,000 threshold.

"If you look on the surface," he said, "it would not send off alarm bells."

Beckner said county government has checks and balances well beyond those board policies, "and I assumed the Children's Board had them."

That, he said, was his only wrong move.

Campo responded, "As for watching the budget, all the board members have culpability, but Beckner bills himself as a fiscal conservative."

Last spring, the Times reported $450,000 in no-bid contracts approved by Children's Board administrators. A scathing outside study later found a dysfunctional workplace, one where a majority of staffers "feel key leaders of the executive team lack integrity and ethics."

In his e-mails, Campo wrote that Beckner "said nothing and did nothing ... until everybody got caught in the cookie jar." Iuculano said Beckner had come to the board with no experience in social services and "was asleep until the newspapers started writing about it."

Beckner said the policies existed years before his tenure. "I became very vocal that we needed a performance audit," he said, once the problems were revealed.

Campo said he's still digging. Expect more e-mails.

John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or jbarry@tampabay.com.

Beckner defends himself against accusations 09/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 22, 2012 7:58pm]
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