Builder with $1.1 million contract with Workforce Alliance sold house to the agency's former chief

TAMPA — As chief executive of the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, Renee Benton Gilmore approved a lucrative contract for a local construction company whose owner later sold her a $367,540 golf course home.

Workforce Alliance policies require competitive bidding for contracts exceeding $100,000. But officials at the embattled agency say they have no documents showing other proposals were sought in 2003 when the agency awarded ATA Construction Co. a contract that started at $250,000 for office renovations.

By the time it expired in 2005, the contract had been modified five times, with every change signed by Gilmore.

The final payout: $1.1 million.

A few months later, Anthony Sierra, owner of ATA, sold the newly built home to Gilmore.

Sierra told the St. Petersburg Times he did nothing wrong. But he acknowledged that "authorities" have questioned him about his business ties to Workforce Alliance officials. The contractor also said he has received a subpoena.

He would not say what agency contacted him or discuss specifics about what was asked. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has confirmed it is investigating the Workforce Alliance, a publicly funded non-profit, and vendors with which it has done business.

FDLE officials won't say whether Sierra or ATA are part of the investigation.

Gilmore, who earned $170,000 a year as the head of an agency that provides job skills to the working poor and unemployed, quit her job last month amid accusations of lavish spending.

An audit revealed that the Workforce Alliance spent $133,000 on food and refreshments during a one-year period. Many of the purchases were meals for staff, from restaurants that included The Cheesecake Factory, Wright's Gourmet House and Stonewood Grill & Tavern.

The audit, conducted by the Office of Inspector General at the Agency for Workforce Innovation, concluded that much of the spending "fell short of serving a public purpose."

The Workforce Alliance has an annual budget of $31.8 million — almost $9 million of it federal stimulus money. It also gets state funding.

Gilmore, 52, did not return phone calls seeking comment, or respond to multiple attempts to contact her at her home. She has hired defense lawyer Barry Cohen to represent her.

Cohen cautioned against jumping to conclusions before the investigation is complete.

He said it would be unfair to infer that Gilmore had done something wrong by simply purchasing a house from a man who also did business with the Workforce Alliance.

"You can't impute a sinister motive to purely innocent conduct," Cohen said Wednesday.

Cohen said FDLE officials have not contacted him or his client.

"This woman has got impeccable integrity," he said. "Just because they investigate something, that doesn't mean that somebody did anything wrong."

Sierra told the Times he first met Gilmore when she was shopping for a house. He wouldn't be specific but said it was before ATA's initial contract with the Workforce Alliance was signed in June 2003.

At some point, Gilmore asked Sierra if he did commercial work, Sierra recalled. He said one of Gilmore's staff members later contacted him about bidding on a renovation project at the agency's Florida Avenue office.

In a subsequent interview with a Times reporter, Sierra retracted his account of how he met Gilmore. And he insisted he knew nothing about the agency's bidding process.

"I have nothing to hide,'' he said. "If someone asks me to bid, I bid."

About three months after ATA's contract expired in July 2005, Sierra sold Gilmore a 2,100-square-foot house on the 14th fairway of the Babe Zaharias Golf Course in Tampa. Two months later, another contract, which eventually reached $614,000, went into effect between ATA and the Workforce Alliance.

Official records show a $267,540 mortgage was used to purchase the two-story, four-bedroom home. At the time, Gilmore was already responsible for $436,000 in mortgage debt on her Temple Terrace home and a Brandon townhouse she owns with her son, according to county records.

Sierra said he gave no price discounts or "kickbacks" to Gilmore.

"Nothing weird happened," Sierra said. "I know what (investigators) are fishing for, but none of that happened."

In all, the Workforce Alliance has paid ATA more than $2 million for its services, according to the agency.

The latest contract, which expires Friday, was initially for $23,000 to do more work at the Tampa career center. But it, too, was modified, with a total payout of $138,000.

Although Gilmore signed ATA's first and largest contract, Workforce Alliance senior vice president Julie Sanon signed the three other agreements with ATA, all of which were advertised for bid.

Sanon has been on leave since the week before Gilmore's resignation, an agency spokeswoman said. When reached by phone, Sanon declined to comment on the contracts.

Gilmore is the chairwoman-elect of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. Despite her resignation from the Workforce Alliance, she still intends to assume the post, said chamber president Bob Rohrlack.

Gilmore started a new consulting company, The Saja Group LLC, this month, according to corporate records.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Mike Fasano is working to tighten policies at all of the state's 24 workforce boards. The New Port Richey Republican is pushing for legislation that would put the workforce boards under stricter state scrutiny.

Times staff writers Colleen Jenkins and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report. Kevin Smetana can be reached at ksmetana@sptimes.com or (813) 610-1650.

Builder with $1.1 million contract with Workforce Alliance sold house to the agency's former chief 03/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 18, 2010 11:03am]

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