Whispers about the city's annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade and accompanying Battle of the Bands competition have circulated for years:
Why isn't there a detailed public accounting of the events' finances? Exactly how has Sevell Brown, the main organizer, used the more than $500,000 in city funds and services over the past decade?
The questions grew louder recently when Brown prepared to ask the city for more money for this year's events, which begin this weekend.
"From day one, people have wondered whether any money was made and where it goes," said council member Wengay Newton, who has tried for years to get answers. "My constituency always asked, 'What do they do with proceeds from the event?' I know the event raises money because people are charged for things. … You can't see numbers, you don't see what's being made, what's being lost."
A Tampa Bay Times investigation has found that the Dr. King events run by Brown garner far less financial scrutiny from the city than other similar annual events such as St. Pete Pride and the Festival of States.
The Times also found that:
• Despite a dayslong search, city officials could not provide detailed financial records for the Battle of the Bands event, even though it is required on city applications and written into contracts for co-sponsored events.
• While the parade and the Battle of the Bands event are supposed to be coordinated by two different groups, obvious and significant overlap occurs, raising more transparency questions.
• The city could not provide a record of checking on what, if any, efforts parade organizers made to raise money to help pay for city services, a requirement of a federal court settlement.
Brown bristled when the Times recently asked him about his events' finances. He would not answer basic questions about expenses or income.
"Why would there be any questions?" he asked. "What is the issue?"
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The popular MLK parade, now in its 30th year, is often touted as the largest in the Southeast.
Like other local parades, including the annual St. Pete Pride and Festival of States, vendors and participants pay to be in it. Unlike the others, the MLK parade has always been designated as a free speech event.
That's important because with that status, an organization can get a waiver for police, fire and cleanup costs if it can prove indigency. Past city budgets have pegged that at about $17,000 for the MLK parade.
But when Brown prepared to ask for more funds for this year — one official said he was seeking between $40,000 and $100,000 above what was already allocated — council members spoke out.
Newton and council member Karl Nurse noted that each year, they see limited financial details, often just a bank balance document that shows a minimal deposit made days prior.
The city's legal department has historically deflected questions from council members about the parade, saying that a 1990 court settlement with Brown and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference forces the city to pay for the services if a group shows that it is indigent.
Nurse and Newton said they want more information.
"Let me just be blunt," Nurse said. "How do you put on all these events if you have $100 in the bank? It's a miracle … or something else. … And I don't know which."
The same settlement also includes a clause that says organizers would "continue efforts to raise or otherwise obtain the funds to pay for city services necessary for its annual Martin Luther King parade."
It's unclear if that has ever happened.
"The (indigency) committee should take into account any money that might be raised by the event. … I believe you should be able to ask for an accounting at the end of the event and see if they made a profit and could contribute to those services," City Attorney John Wolfe said. "As far as I know they have not. I'm not sure if that's ever happened."
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The rules are slightly different for the Battle of the Bands, which brings high school and college bands to Tropicana Field and charges spectators from $10 to $15.
Indigency is not a factor because it is not a free speech event.
The city, however, has co-sponsored the event, giving Brown at least $35,000 every year for the past decade.
Unpacking Brown's expenses for the bands event is not easy either.
One of the biggest costs he might have is booking Tropicana Field, which is controlled by the Tampa Bay Rays.
Rays officials would not say how much they charge Brown, referring questions to the city. The city said it doesn't know.
Brown lamented that no one asks the same probing questions of other big events around town, specifically mentioning the annual Festival of States parade, which also gets $35,000 from the city.
"Why (questions) about the black organization that's controlled by blacks?" Brown said. "Why the disparity in the treatment?"
The Times' investigation, however, found that the city does scrutinize other events' finances.
It asks organizations that want to be co-sponsored to produce detailed information about revenue, expenses and allocation of income.
And every year, it gets that information, including details such as the $1,600 St. Pete Pride spent on tables and chairs and the $1,100 the Festival of States said it pulled in from parade entry fees one year.
Brown's files don't have anywhere near that level of detail. Though he does submit invoices to the city in order to be reimbursed for expenses related to Battle of the Bands, he doesn't provide income statements or balance sheets.
The Times asked city officials to look for any other financial reports Brown submitted over the years for the band event. They came up empty.
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To maintain its indigency status, the parade needs to be separate from the band event. If it isn't, and the band event makes money, the city might no longer find the parade indigent.
"How would you know who made the profit and who didn't?" Wolfe said.
He and other city officials insisted that although Brown is the main organizer for both events, there are two separate legal entities.
Brown has filed for indigency under the name of the National Christian League of Councils, a group he formed after splitting with the SCLC.
On his co-sponsored events applications for the battle of the bands, Brown uses the name of the MLK Holiday & Legacy Association Inc.
"Based on what we have in front of us those are two different organizations putting on two separate events," said Assistant City Attorney Jeannine Williams, who sits on the committee that approves Brown's indigency application.
But city records show the MLK Holiday & Legacy Association also as the sponsor for the parade. People who want to march in the parade, for a fee starting at $75, make checks payable to the association, according to the event website.
In 2009, a lawyer for Brown, Jonathan Alpert, told the Times the MLK Holiday and Legacy Association is "a simple nonprofit that has actually been running the parade for the last 25 years."
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Nurse said questions about the MLK events are evidence the city's system for co-sponsored events needs an overhaul.
"There's a number of issues around (co-sponsored events) that we have sort of danced around for some time," Nurse said. "Hopefully this is the start of us dealing with them."
Contact Kameel Stanley at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.