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Earlier scandal won't stop millions for a Hillsborough nonprofit agency

TAMPA — Eight years ago, the nonprofit Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan was embroiled in a scandal that landed its executive director and the city's housing chief in federal prison.

Now the agency is slated to get a $6.5 million boost over the next three years, thanks to President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package. The money will bolster THAP's efforts to weatherize homes of low-income residents in Hillsborough and Polk counties.

THAP's current executive director, Lynn Knox, was the agency's chief operating officer when its problems became public. She worked for Chet Luney, the THAP boss who helped Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake build a lavish house in exchange for city housing contracts.

Knox approved many of the contracts, put family members on the THAP payroll and enjoyed generous benefits, including a sports utility vehicle paid for with agency money, as a THAP executive. She testified against Luney and LaBrake in federal court and emerged unscathed after the investigation.

"I'd like people to know that we have changed a lot since Chet Luney was here," Knox said in a recent interview.

THAP's history concerned Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena when she learned millions in federal money was headed its way. So she paid a visit to Knox's office in a storage unit on 50th Street in East Tampa.

"She impressed me with the new checks and balances they'd instituted and improved administrative procedures," Saul-Sena said. "It appeared she was running a fiscally responsible organization."

There's also a new board and an ethics policy.

But Saul-Sena still worries that THAP may not be able to handle the expanded workload.

"This is such a stretch, such a dramatic increase, in the number of constituents they'll be serving and the number of employees they'll be supervising. I just hope they'll be able to do a good job," she said.

THAP's budget boost is coming through the Florida Department of Community Affairs' weatherization assistance program, which has been approved for $175 million in federal stimulus money, a huge boon for an initiative that last year received just $3 million from the U.S. Energy Department.

Saul-Sena said she would have preferred the state request proposals from other agencies before distributing the new money.

But the state department is directing the cash to dozens of agencies that have historically been involved with the 30-year-old program. Plans call for weatherizing 19,000 homes over the next three years.

"We have faith and trust in all the agencies," said James Miller, a spokesman for the Community Affairs Department. "If an agency did have issues, we would obviously take action."

The money is awarded on a reimbursement basis, which Miller said helps prevent fraud.

Knox insists that THAP's past is just that — in the past.

She said she considered changing the name of the organization after the scandal, but decided that would be akin to admitting there was something wrong with the entire agency.

The problems, she said, "had everything to do with the housing component, not the social services component."

The organization is out of the housing business, she said. In recent years, THAP has used its annual budget of less than $2 million from grants to support social programs for low-income pregnant women, people with HIV and former inmates.

Some employees from the old days remain.

"They were willing to stay because they knew the organization, what kind of work it does and what the mission of the organization is," Knox said.

And new hires are "individuals who aren't going to put their livelihoods in jeopardy," she said.

So far, THAP has received $284,000 in federal stimulus weatherization funds to update its 500-person waiting list, buy equipment, train workers and hire four new employees, adding to its payroll of 30 people.

At least one more person, possibly two, also will be brought in. THAP will hire licensed general contractors to do the weatherization work, which includes caulking and weather-stripping, insulating and installing solar screens and heating and cooling units.

"Each of these contractors will be hiring from the community," she said. "That means we're putting men and women back to work."

Knox expects THAP to weatherize nearly 700 units over the next three years, rather than a more typical 450.

The program aids people whose income is not more than 200 percent of the national poverty level. That translates to an income of $21,660 for a one-person household and $44,100 for a household of four.

Janie Powell, 64, collects about $1,580 a month from Social Security to support two young grandchildren and a disabled nephew. After THAP paid for her to have new drywall and upgrades to her air-conditioning system and water heater unit, her electric bills went from $200 to $100 a month at her East Tampa home.

"It was a great help to me, with me being on a fixed income, and not being able to have the repairs and things done that needed to be done," she said. "They were very professional, did outstanding work.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Earlier scandal won't stop millions for a Hillsborough nonprofit agency 08/16/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 16, 2009 12:29am]
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