TAMPA — A former Tampa Housing Authority employee was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months in federal prison for using bogus landlords to steal tens of thousands of dollars in federal Housing and Urban Development Department grant money.
Mario Lovett, 30, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and was also ordered to pay more than $182,000 in restitution.
Prosecutors said Lovett and two other former Housing Authority employees recruited friends and relatives to pose as landlords in the agency's Housing Assistance Payments program.
Calvin Coleman and Carlton Miles, the other former Section 8 counselors charged in the scheme, have both pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.
A majority of the bogus landlords charged in the fraud, which took place in 2004 and 2005, have also pleaded guilty.
As a Section 8 counselor, Lovett had the ability to put names of landlords into the Housing Authority's database so those individuals would receive checks subsidizing the rents of their tenants.
Prosecutors said that Lovett, Coleman and Miles used the names of tenants who had either died or been evicted, so that legitimate landlords wouldn't complain about not receiving payments.
In some cases, the men used fictitious property addresses for the bogus landlords or addresses of properties already in the Housing Authority's system, prosecutors said.
Defense attorney Robert Hearn asked U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday to consider Lovett's overall good character and sentence him to probation instead of prison.
Lovett grew up in North Boulevard Homes in West Tampa. He was raised by his grandmother and had little, if any, relationship with his parents while he was growing up.
Attorney John Phillips called Lovett a standout in the Brains in Basketball program that Lovett began participating in at age 12.
Phillips, who helped organize the program, said Lovett was always the first to complete any task and served as a role model among the other middle and high school participants.
"He's a remarkable individual despite the fact that he's standing before you today," Phillips told the judge.
Speaking on his own behalf, Lovett talked about overcoming the obstacles of his childhood. He steered clear of drugs and other temptations, he said, choosing instead to focus on basketball.
He became a star at Leto High School and earned a full athletic scholarship to the University of Central Florida, serving as captain of the basketball team and graduating with a psychology degree.
Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.