Wednesday, November 22, 2017
News Roundup

Children's Board staffer reports potential problems with more contracts

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TAMPA — Not long after reports showed problems with $450,000 in no-bid contracts, the top official at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County downplayed that price tag compared to overall spending.

"This issue has been dealt with," chief executive officer Luanne Panacek wrote Hillsborough County commissioners in a letter. "But I think it was made to appear more scandalous and salacious than it actually was."

But a new analysis by a Children's Board staffer suggests the value of contracts not following bid policy is even higher than previously reported— nearly $4 million since 2007.

Madelyn Hornbeck, an accountant and auditor who works as special projects coordinator for the agency, sent Children's Board leaders a report this week showing 96 contracts that she said should have followed the bidding process but did not.

Children's Board chief financial officer Tonia Williams said in a written statement that she hadn't finished a detailed review of Hornbeck's report but had already identified "several false statements." She did not elaborate.

Hornbeck, 42, is on unpaid medical leave and has a pending discrimination complaint against the Children's Board with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She was able to view the contract documents from home on a shared electronic drive.

"Often times the fix to an organizational problem is quite simple, but when left unchecked for these many years, the damage is overwhelming and newsworthy," Hornbeck wrote in an e-mail she sent to top administrators and three members of the agency's board of directors.

"Appropriate training and supervision,'' she wrote, "would have easily avoided any deliberate or neglectful bad contracting."

The taxpayer-funded Children's Board, which finances child welfare programs in the county, has come under scrutiny in recent months over questions about financial contracts and staff morale. Hillsborough commissioners voted this week to ask state legislators to audit the agency, which is independent of the county.

Under its policy, the Children's Board must seek bids, quotes or requests for proposals on purchases of $10,000 or more. The policy says that if officials believe only one vendor exists within a 100-mile radius, they must lay out the justification in what's called a single-source purchase statement. They must also seek new quotes each year.

Hornbeck said her report includes contracts without the proper documentation proving they were the only choice, as well as some that weren't bid because the Children's Board classified them as recurring "program" expenses.

Williams said expenses paid out of the program budget do not have to go through the bidding process. Hornbeck said many of those expenses, such as training classes, should go out to bid.

The Times reported in April that Children's Board administrators did not follow the required steps on contracts to at least three recipients, which got a total of nearly $450,000 since 2007.

Two of them (production company Bamboo Kazoo and the University of South Florida Mental Health Institute) have officials with personal ties to top Children's Board executives. One recipient, the owner of software developer Centrasoft, was a former Children's Board staffer.

After acknowledging problems with how they handled those no-bid contracts, Children's Board officials said they would take corrective steps, including rebidding work and running all new contracts through a procurement team.

Hornbeck's report adds new names to the list of no-bid contracts:

• A $62,500 contract that went to Voices for Florida's Children in 2007 for a communications plan.

• A $37,350 contract in 2008 that went to the production company of former staffer Renee Warmack to shoot a documentary about the Children's Board and manage events.

• A $107,300 contract to software developer Digital Streams Solution in 2007.

• Nearly $100,000 in 2007 for human resource services to Marc Bellas, whom the board later hired.

Reached by the Times on Friday, Hornbeck, who was hired by the Children's Board in 2005, said she had been pointing out internal problems to her bosses for years but never got anywhere. She said she wants to help fix the contracting problems she wrote about in the report.

"I've been asking for changes for a long time, and I welcome other people looking into this," she said.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.

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