ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster on Friday moved up a scheduled audit of the city's housing department after he read a report in the St. Petersburg Times detailing the lack of oversight in how the department bids work and discloses conflicts of interest.
"Some potential deficiencies in the process came to light," Foster said, "and we're going to make sure that something like this can't be alleged again."
The story was about how until last year there was no record of the manager of the city's Housing and Community Development department, Thomas K. de Yampert, disclosing potential conflicts of interest with contractors who did business with his department and worked on his personal rental property.
De Yampert, a 16-year employee who is retiring form his $85,000 job in January, said he never sought favorable treatment from these contractors or steered them city work. Still, there were no formal procedures in place to govern the bidding process to ensure this didn't happen. Bids came in past deadline and unsealed.
The lack of controls alarmed Eileen Julian, a recipient of a city loan processed by de Yampert's department. She alleged she was influenced by the city to hire a contractor who had done work on two of his rentals. She later fired the contractor, convinced he was overbilling her. Florida's Department of Community Affairs, among other agencies, was notified, but decided to drop further inquiries into Julian's allegations.
Foster wasn't mayor when the alleged abuses took place. He took office in January, but said he doesn't think there was any wrongdoing, just a lack of formal oversight.
"I truly don't believe there was malicious intent here," Foster said. "I still stand behind my housing department."
Foster said he didn't know when the audit would begin, or exactly what it would examine.
The administrator he appointed to head the housing department, Goliath Davis, said he ordered the audit once he started his new job in January.
"It was a routine thing," Davis said. "I wanted to look at policies or procedures to see if they needed tweaking. I was new in overseeing the department and wanted to understand it better."
But after he ordered it, Davis said he went months without hearing anything else about it. The Times story, however, raised issues that "warranted further inquiry," he said.
"Especially to make sure that our policies and procedures sufficiently preclude any improprieties," Davis said.
A recent audit found that officials deviated from their normal practices when they purchased a Childs Park home owned by a relative of Davis. It cleared him of any wrongdoing, saying Davis wasn't involved in the purchase. It did, however, conclude the city overpaid without properly getting an updated appraisal of the home.
Council Member Karl Nurse, who had been a critic of that purchase, said he has known de Yampert for 15 years and doesn't suspect him of doing anything wrong.
Even so, he was concerned about the lack of formal rules in the department's awarding of bids.
"There ought to be a formal procedure," Nurse said. "It sounds like it's pretty loose."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org