TAMPA — Over the last four years, the Children's Board of Hillsborough County has awarded $176,170 in no-bid contracts to the Florida Mental Health Institute.
The contracts, which cover specialized training sessions for case workers, aren't the only ties binding the two agencies:
• The Children's Board executive whose subordinate handles the contracts is the partner of the institute's training director.
• The institute's primary trainer is married to the building supervisor for the Children's Board.
• High-ranking Children's Board employees — including CEO Luanne Panacek — used to work for the institute.
Children's Board officials have an explanation for awarding the sole-source contract to Florida Mental Health Institute, part of the University of South Florida: It's the only game in town.
"It's still the closest and most reasonable to afford," Panacek said.
It's unclear how officials can be so certain. The board never put the training project out to bid.
Despite a written policy on sole-source contracts that requires the agency obtain annual price quotes from other potential vendors, spokesman Dan Casseday acknowledged Wednesday that officials had failed to do so for at least two years. The Children's Board could not produce evidence of ever receiving quotes.
This is public money. The Children's Board was created by voters almost 25 years ago. Nearly $30 million in property taxes raised last year was used primarily to finance nonprofit agencies that provide services to children. The board oversees that money.
The Children's Board has provided a variety of training seminars to caseworkers since 1998. The sole-source contract with the USF institute stems from a 2000 program, for which the Children's Board was lead agency, that used a state grant to implement a "family conferencing model."
That model requires caseworkers to take specific steps to help stabilize at-risk families. Under the contracts, a half-day session costs $600, a full-day session $1,200.
In 2008, retired Children's Board employee Jim Robinson provided that training. His 10-month contract was worth up to $49,500. But Robinson couldn't carry out the contract, so the Children's Board turned to the group that trained him, the Florida Mental Health Institute. In August 2008, the Children's Board signed a no-bid contract with the institute for up to $10,000.
Three months later, Laurie Bettinghaus, the Children's Board's chief learning officer, sent Panacek a note. She wrote she had "what could potentially be perceived as conflict of interest" regarding the upcoming contract with the USF program. "Because of this," she wrote, "I will not participate in oversight of this contract."
Bettinghaus, who currently makes $127,338 a year, didn't elaborate, but her potential conflict was this: The training consortium's director is Laurie Cunningham, her longtime partner, with whom she owns a home.
Panacek said Bettinghaus doesn't touch the contract, even though the manager who does reports directly to Bettinghaus. She said it's not a complicated contract: Either the institute offers the classes or it doesn't.
"I don't think there are issues, that's the point," Panacek said. "If there was an issue, I'd be hearing about it. This is just one of the most straightforward, easy-to-monitor things there is."
The current yearly contract is for up to $36,000. In previous years, the contracts were worth $40,800, $59,622 and $39,748.
Cunningham declined to comment about a potential conflict of interest. She said her program is unique in that it has a curriculum to train not only case workers but also trainers. She said it has provided training to child protection agencies around the state.
Hillsborough Kids Inc., the county's lead child protection agency until July, requires case managers with its subcontractors — such as Camelot Community Care or Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services — to receive some type of family-based training, said spokeswoman Jeanine Bedell. Those individual agencies decided how to pursue the training, which doesn't necessarily have to be the same "family conferencing" model. Many of them decide to go through the Children's Board, she said.
Children's Board officials had a hard time explaining why their agency must offer the USF institute-run classes, or why its own staff can't teach the classes. Part of the curriculum, for instance, is based on original content created by the Children's Board — but still taught by USF staff.
Panacek initially said a federal grant required the Children's Board offer the sessions. She later released a three-page history of the agency's training programs that tied the sole contract to another program.
In an interview this week, she expressed frustration at the question. "I don't think you really want to understand this," she said.
The Children's Board's counterpart across the bay, the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board, once had its own training center for case workers. But as tax revenue decreased, the agency sharpened its focus and eliminated it, said spokesman Ben Kirby.
Kirby said the Pinellas agency did see a need to offer some classes for caseworkers, so it hired a trainer from the Florida Mental Health Institute last year to conduct a handful of seminars for case workers. It ended up costing the board around $5,000.
He said hunting for a qualified trainer outside that USF program would be difficult.
"All the stuff is already there," he said.
At the Hillsborough Children's Board, several members of its board of directors said they didn't know anything about the sole- source contract. One of them, Pete Edwards, a critic of Panacek, said he wanted more information.
"It does seem strange. You think they'd tell the board, 'Hey, we have these issues and our lawyer has determined it's not a conflict,' " he said. "I've learned the hard way that the administration has had this thing for a long time and they don't want you to ask anything about operations and procedures."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.