Turmoil surrounds Pinellas construction board manager Anne Maddox

Anne Maddox, the administrative manager of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, would not tell the Tampa Bay Times how much potential work the agency sent to vice chair Tom Tafelski.  [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]
Anne Maddox, the administrative manager of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, would not tell the Tampa Bay Times how much potential work the agency sent to vice chair Tom Tafelski. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
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LARGO — The executive director resigned amid controversy. Two investigators were forced out after they were accused of wasting hundreds of hours of county time. And an inspector general report excoriated the agency’s management for among other things being "unconcerned with ethics, which can have a trickle-down effect on employees."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders

Through it all, Anne Maddox was second in command at the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which regulates contractors and investigates complaints against them. She remains there today, helping the interim director pick up the pieces at an agency that remains in turmoil and on shaky financial footing.

Beyond the problems detailed by the inspector general, Maddox has had her own troubles at the agency, the Tampa Bay Times has found.

She used a restricted database to look up personal information about her college professor and spent days in her office studying toward an advanced college degree. She also clashed repeatedly with several employees in the small office.

Gay Lancaster, the interim executive director since February, declined to comment about Maddox. She said she talked with all of the employees when she first took the job. Those interviews, she said, revealed "vast differences in the way" many of them remember some of the controversies at the agency.

Maddox, 57, defended her work records and said she agreed with many of Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo’s findings. But she said she never had authority to make policy changes at the agency.

"I am an advocate for agency efficiency, transparency and the overall mission of the PCCLB and that is to safeguard the life, health, property and public welfare of the citizens of Pinellas County," Maddox wrote in a statement.

• • •

Former executive director Rodney Fischer hired Maddox as a secretary in 2010, a day after she lost her job at the Pinellas County Attorney’s Office due to budget cuts. She joined a staff of 10 — the executive director, five office workers and four investigators.

In 2011, Maddox became an investigator, earning $48,000 annually. In November 2013, Fischer promoted her to a newly created position — administrative manager — and gave her a $15,000 raise. In 2015, she received a $4,500 "merit-special" increase, records show. She now earns $73,000 annually.

Inside the agency, the culture changed from "collegial" to "very confrontational" after Maddox joined the staff, said Jim Mapes, a former police officer who spent 20 years as a board investigator. Mapes retired in 2012, but said employees still call him to complain about Maddox.

"I don’t like what I hear," Mapes told the Times. "There’s good people working there."

The office tension boiled over in 2013, when Fischer called a staff meeting to deny rumors that he and Maddox were having an affair, according to a transcript from an audio recording of the meeting. Fischer said he or Maddox, who also denied the affair, could sue them if they didn’t stop spreading rumors.

When the Times first reported on the meeting in January, office worker Rebecca Fiesbeck described it as "a grand finale of folly."

"It was surreal," she said.

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD

Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process (Jan. 20, 2017)

Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a ‘bully’ and ‘suspicious’ in clashes with employees and county officials (Jan. 30, 2017)

Pinellas licensing board executive director settled hundreds of cases without getting his board’s approval (May 26, 2017)

Times investigation: Pinellas County construction agency steered work to board member (Aug. 31, 2017)

Don Balas, an agency investigator, said Maddox was the reason he decided to retire two years early.

"The work environment was extremely hostile," Balas wrote in a letter filed with the county. "Anne Maddox was the main reason I retired earlier than I had wanted."

The inspector general report did not refer directly to Maddox by name but instead used her title of administrative manager, a position "tasked with overseeing day-to-day operations." It repeatedly mentioned "management" failures, including how Fischer and Maddox didn’t monitor money that contractors paid the agency or investigators who wasted hundreds of hours shopping and working out.

"The Board, former PCCLB executive director and Management did not foster and promote a culture that values compliance, accountability and ethical behavior."

Maddox remained a staunch ally of Fischer up until he resigned in January, defending the way he managed the agency. After Fischer left, she began to say that she was just following his orders.

She dismissed the criticism from Balas and other former colleagues.

"Quite honestly the statements made by (them) are distorted, non-factually based and libelous," Maddox wrote.

• • •

Maddox has been in hot water several times since rising through the agency’s ranks.

In 2015, she ran her college professor’s name through a restricted database, which contains Social Security numbers, vehicle registrations, home addresses, cell numbers and contact information for relatives and neighbors.

After an employee alerted the professor, she drove from Hernando County to the licensing board office in Largo and angrily confronted Maddox in the lobby. Maddox said Fischer intervened to calm the professor and explained why Maddox conducted the search.

Maddox told the Times she was investigating whether a board employee used an agency cell phone to make personal calls. To prevent the employee from finding out about the search, Maddox said she entered the professor’s name to push her other queries further down the page. She said she was not trying to find out information about the professor.

She was not formally reprimanded, according to her personnel file.

"I did not view her information nor use it for harm or any personal gain," Maddox wrote in a statement to the Times, adding Fischer made her apologize to the professor.

Earlier this year, the Times reported how Fischer and Maddox had referred homeowners and a contractor to the board’s vice chair to perform work related to disputes over shoddy construction. Maddox said that Fischer had ordered her to do it.

When the inspector general questioned Maddox this summer about the referrals, she stated the "PCCLB never knew it was a conflict of interest to refer business to Board members ..."

The inspector general concluded the referrals gave the board member "an unfair advantage over other contractors" and allowed him to profit from the board position.

"In retrospect ... that may have not been a proper thing to do," Maddox wrote in a statement to the Times. But "it was not an intentional act to provide a favor to a board member or benefit me in any way."

This summer, Maddox hired another board member to repair the agency’s air conditioner.

The inspector general determined that paying the board members was a "conflict of interest" that should be avoided.

• • •

Maddox also spent days studying in her office toward an advanced degree in business administration from Saint Leo University.

The public benefitted, she told the Times, because she was still in the office, available to employees if they had questions or needed her help. She declined to provide a list of the days she studied but said she worked "countless weekends," which made up for many of the days she spent studying. She said Fischer also allowed her to mark down the time as vacation hours.

"I did do doctoral work at the office," her statement said. e_SDLq(I) brought in my own paper and was available by staff as needed."

This month, Maddox stressed she didn’t study on "county time" and revised her statement to say she studied at work "only a couple of times due to an impending deadline."

Ken Burnett, a licensing board investigator from 2012 through 2015, said Maddox studied in her office on and off for about two years. The perk, he said, set a bad example at the public agency and undermined morale. Fischer favored certain employees, including Maddox, he added.

"Nobody else could get away with that," said Burnett, a former deputy police chief. "It’s wrong."

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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