ST. PETERSBURG — Toriano Parker has a vision to help poor neighborhood children in Midtown who need a place to go besides the streets. He's looking for grants and donations to buy a city-owned gymnasium on 22nd Street S and grow a nonprofit recreation center.
He's also got another challenge.
Parker, 39, is fighting a federal indictment accusing him of helping 14 people inflate their tax returns by thousands of dollars. He has pleaded not guilty to tax fraud.
Parker is president of Advantage Financial Advisors, a tax preparation and financial services business at 1221 22nd St. S, alongside the Jordan Park Gym, at 1201 22nd St. S. He rents both buildings from the city housing authority.
In an interview, Parker said the federal charges were a misunderstanding. He said former employees of his tax business who are not named in court papers were to blame. Still, he admitted that he was worried about what effect the charges might have on his plans for Advantage Village Academy.
"It really has zero to do with the other," Parker said of the court case and his nonprofit venture. "Everything goes on credibility and reputation. If you don't have that, you don't have a thing."
According to the indictment, Parker claimed $46,000 in 14 tax returns between 2004 and 2007 when those returns were only due $13,000. In two cases, Parker claimed $6,653 and $776 on returns where his clients owed money. In court papers, prosecutors said they had additional evidence that Parker was involved in preparing at least 35 other fraudulent returns between 2003 and 2006.
Parker's attorney, Jeffrey G. Brown, declined to comment for this article. So did Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay L. Hoffer. The next court date is Aug. 12.
A former Gibbs High School wrestler, Parker has not sought publicity for his recreation center or for fundraising efforts related to it. He said he started the recreation center to give back. He was raised by a single mother and grew up with people who ended up in jail or worse. He said he was fortunate to go to college to earn a business degree. Before he took it over, the gym building sat vacant for several years.
In interviews, Parker and Quanette Feazell, board chairwoman and treasurer of Advantage Village Academy, said Parker is the recreation center's primary financial backer. Parker said he had invested $80,000 in the academy so far, much of it his own money.
The academy has a six-member board and two paid staffers. Children, teens and adults are asked for $5 a month to use the academy's computers, weight room and gymnasium, but few pay. No one is turned away.
Lillian Baker, president of the Wildwood Neighborhood Association, and other community leaders applaud Parker for his initiative. The academy, which Parker said serves about 200 children a year, is across the street from the Jordan Park neighborhood, which includes hundreds of subsidized housing units for single mothers and their children. The nearest city recreation center is Wildwood, about a mile away.
"We can't cover it all in our recreation centers," City Council member Wengay Newton said. "It fills a need for kids that have nothing to do."
Last year, Parker was denied a forfeiture grant, money that is seized from criminal investigations by the St. Petersburg Police Department and sprinkled among community organizations.
"He's doing great things, but he's having a tough go at it. Everybody is after the same dollars, and it's shrinking," Newton said. "It doesn't stop him. He'll just try to find another way."
Parker declined to go into detail about his tax business but said he completed 1,600 returns last year.
In July 2009, Parker signed a year lease for the gym building with an option to buy. The gym's rent is $3,400 a month, according to the housing authority. Utility bills and other expenses bring the recreation center's monthly costs to $6,000, Parker said. Not much more could be learned about the nonprofit. Its latest filings with the state are from 2007 and did not include detailed information.
In May, as his lease was set to expire, Parker asked the housing authority to extend it by six months and announced his plan to buy the 15,000-square-foot gym building, which is valued at $1 million. The board is now in talks with Parker.
"We're just hoping it will all be over," Parker said of his indictment. "We're trying to move on."
Researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Reach Luis Perez at (727) 892-2271 or email@example.com.