ST. PETERSBURG — A month before he hired the director of international studies, St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler sent her to a Washington conference, paid her $500 a day and arranged a tour of the White House.
He also used his personal credit card to pay part of her expenses, according to records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.
The Washington trip, and an internal memorandum about the controversial hiring of Violetta Sweet, raise further questions about Kuttler's involvement in the process.
Sweet, a former college payroll clerk who had been working at her husband's jewelry shop, was hired in December as the acting director of international studies without a public application process.
She got the job full time in June, along with a salary of $64,000, though many of the 60 applicants for the position appeared more qualified. Her hire also was the subject of a recent meeting between Kuttler and a lawyer for the college's board of trustees, and it now is at the center of an independent trustees audit.
The memo, written a year ago by college human resources director Patty Jones, suggested stronger applicants than Sweet existed for the position. Jones said Tuesday that memo referred to a higher-level position with a higher starting salary.
Sweet said the D.C. trip was originally a vacation. When she asked Kuttler, a friend, to arrange a tour of the U.S. Capitol, he asked her to do some consulting work for the college. No jobs were promised. None was even discussed, both Sweet and Kuttler say.
"When I realized she was going there, I suggested, why don't we get some benefit of that," Kuttler said.
Kuttler said it's not unusual for him to use his credit card to book other people's travel arrangements. Records show he was reimbursed by Sweet. (Sweet was reimbursed by the college.)
It's also not unusual, he said, to arrange trips for employees to see the Capitol and White House while they are in Washington. Kuttler said he recalls setting up between six and eight trips in the past few years through the office of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.
Sweet attended a two-day conference for community college officials looking to expand their international programs. She attended with Steve Johnson, a grants writer at SPC, and wrote a report that was forwarded to top college administrators.
"She agreed to go just to help out," said Johnson, who stayed in the same hotel with Sweet, the Hyatt Regency, but did not attend any personal tours. "I believed she was representing the international programs group. I was there more for the technical side of grant writing."
Kuttler said he chose Sweet to attend the conference because the international programs department was in a lurch.
The former head, Jackie Corcoran, had abruptly left to take a position in Bangladesh, and work was stagnant.
Kuttler needed to get things moving. He knew Sweet, who earlier had applied for a position in the international programs department, was motivated and willing to help. She also was already headed to D.C.
"Her work ethic and her performance, from what I was told, was outstanding," Kuttler said.
Jones' memo, however, again raises questions about whether Sweet was the best person for the job.
Under the subject "Violetta Sweet information," Jones wrote to Kuttler that Sweet had a "lack of significant related experience."
"The original pool that Jackie (Corcoran) was in had some very strong candidates," Jones wrote. "Would you like us to review the pool and send you some of the stronger applications?"
Both Kuttler and Jones said Tuesday that the position referred to in the e-mail was eventually filled by Karen Kaufman White, who has gone on to become provost of the college's Gibbs campus.
The position Sweet ultimately received — director of international studies — was a lower administrative position and paid $15,000 less. No other people were considered for the acting position, White said.
Aaron Sharockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2273.