Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders

LARGO — The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board mismanaged its finances, lacked accountability and disregarded its own rules, according to a scathing report released Wednesday by the county's inspector general.

The report outlined 93 problems at the agency responsible for protecting residents from shoddy contractors, including that former executive director Rodney Fischer "violated county rules and ethics requirements" and that a member of the agency's governing board "misused his position."

The licensing board is "weak and cannot provide meaningful assurance to stakeholders that financial reporting is reliable, assets are safeguarded, operations are efficient and effective, laws and regulations are complied with," the report said.

It added: "The tone at the top of the PCCLB has not created a strong ethical environment."

 

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD

 

Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process

Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a 'bully' and 'suspicious' in clashes with employees and county officials

Pinellas licensing board executive director settled hundreds of cases without getting his board's approval

Times investigation: Pinellas County construction agency steered work to board member

The inspector general also found that two of the agency's employees committed "time and attendance fraud" by spending hundreds of work hours at their homes, shopping centers, a fitness center and a shooting range. One of them also misused a restricted database, the report stated.

The grand jury investigating the licensing board also issued its report Wednesday that recommended the agency remain independent, but that it should undergo a major overhaul to make it more accountable and transparent. The grand jury did not issue any criminal indictments.

Pinellas County Commission chair Janet Long said it troubles her that the grand jury would recommend the agency stay independent when lack of oversight is the reason why it failed to protect homeowners and contractors in the first place.

"It's disappointing in terms of protecting our consumers," Long said.

The Pinellas licensing board is the only one of its kind in the state, a public agency that reports to a board of private contractors and public building officials, not county government. It was created by the Florida Legislature in 1973 and only lawmakers can reshape the agency.

A series of Tampa Bay Times reports starting late last year raised questions about how the agency operated under Fischer, how its leaders and staff conducted themselves and whether it treated consumers and contractors fairly.

The investigation, and the resulting outcry from local politicians, prompted Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe to convene the grand jury. Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr.'s also began his comprehensive look at the agency.

Collazo's 180-page report outlined how the lack of accountability and transparency impacted nearly every area of the board's operations. Among other things, he found that:

• An air conditioning contractor on the board, Jack Joyner, misused his position to push through a rule change that could lower the costs for contractors installing air conditioners. Joyner should have abstained from voting and did not file a disclosure form that outlined the conflict.

• In July, the agency paid Joyner's firm $303 to repair its air conditioner. Paying a board member's company created another conflict of interest.

• Fischer, who is also a contractor, received preferential treatment because he hasn't submitted proof of insurance since 1994.

• The agency did not have proper procedures in place to safeguard the cash it collected when contractors paid fines and fees. Cash, check and credit card receipts were not secured during work hours. Five workers also had the combination to the safe.

• The agency cannot reconcile all unpaid fines from contractors. Some of the unpaid fines go back to 2002 in its accounting system.

• The board's financial statements were not printed, reviewed or saved on a monthly basis.

• Employees shared passwords to a database that contained Social Security numbers, names, addresses and other personal information for residents. The agency kept no log of employees who searched that database.

• The agency failed to protect files that contained credit reports for contractors. The safe and files were located in a room next to the customer service counter.

"Currently, there is no independent oversight of the PCCLB's staff and activities," the inspector general report stated. "The result is an absence of accountability, lack of transparency, and inconsistency in conducting day-to-day operations."

The inspector general opened separate investigations into two agency employees — Paul Roberts and Anthony DeBernardi — after a preliminary review of GPS data collected from their work cars indicated they might have been misusing their time.

From April 2015 to March 2017, Roberts, an investigator at the agency, parked his work car at his home, other residences, shopping centers, and a shooting range for 920 hours, the GPS analysis found. During the same time span, DeBernardi, also an investigator, parked at a bakery, a gym, a shopping center and other non-work locations for almost 526 hours.

The inspector general also began surveilling Roberts and DeBernardi, which confirmed that they were spending their work hours on non-work activities. The reports on the two men concluded that, even accounting for lunch and other breaks, they wasted hundreds of hours on personal activities.

Roberts also spent an "excessive" amount of time searching non-work related websites when he was in the office, including shopping, real estate and weapons sites, the inspector general concluded.

DeBernardi was accused of flashing his PCCLB badge as if he was a law enforcement officer during an altercation outside of work hours, the report stated. He then used a restricted database to look up information on the person he confronted.

After the inspector general revealed the findings to the two men, Roberts agreed to retire and DeBernardi resigned.

In an interview with the Times late Wednesday, Roberts denied the allegations, saying Fischer allowed investigators to work flexible hours, not just 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"They have no idea of all the hours I work on evenings or weekends," he said. "They didn't see that. Rod Fischer gave us that flexibility."

DeBernardi did not return a call for comment.

The two men were able to "misuse county time and equipment because there was minimal oversight of investigators and management was not regularly reviewing GPS data from investigators' vehicles," the reports stated.

The grand jury report released Wednesday rejected the option most favored by the Pinellas County Commission: fold the troubled agency under county government oversight. The grand jury said there would be tension and even conflict between the county and its cities in policing contractors and enforcing building codes.

So the grand jury instead said "the public interest is best served by the Board retaining its independence but with significant changes ..."

The grand jury recommended that the "cumbersome" 21-member board be reduced to 15 members, including three permanent public officials and 12 members appointed by the county commission. The agency should also be subject to county audit and it should issue an annual report on its operations and finances to the public.

County Commissioner Ken Welch said he still favors a takeover. But he said both reports will help reform the agency, in whatever form that takes.

"It moves us closer to a model that might work," he said.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said that on Monday he will introduce legislation to implement the grand jury recommendations.

"I have been waiting on this report from the grand jury," Latvala said. "I think they did a very thorough review."

But State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the only law he will support is one that abolishes the agency.

"It needs to go away," he said.

Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report. Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders 09/20/17 [Last modified: Thursday, September 21, 2017 12:55am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Astros rout Yankees to force Game 7 of AL Championship Series

    Ml

    HOUSTON — Justin Verlander pitched seven shutout innings to outduel Luis Severino for the second time, and the Astros bats came alive in their return home as Houston routed the Yankees 7-1 Friday night and forced a decisive Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

    The Astros’ Brian McCann, who has struggled during the ALCS, breaks a scoreless tie with an RBI double during the fifth inning off Yankees starter Luis Severino.
  2. Review: Faith Hill and Tim McGraw shower love, star power on Tampa's Amalie Arena

    Blogs

    Near the end of their potent new duet Break First, Tim McGraw stopped singing, and let Faith Hill's powerhouse voice take over.

    Faith Hill and Tim McGraw performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Oct. 20, 2017.
  3. Senate to take up AUMF debate as Trump defends reaction to Niger attack

    World

    WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is taking up a long-awaited debate about authorizing military force against the Islamic State as President Trump comes under unprecedented public scrutiny for his treatment of dead soldiers' families, following an ambush on troops helping to fight Islamic …

  4. In fear and vigilance, a Tampa neighborhood holds its breath

    K12

    TAMPA — There was a time, not long ago, when Wayne Capaz would go for a stroll at night and Christina Rodriguez would shop whenever she wanted. Michael Fuller would go to his night job as a line cook, not too worried about his wife at home.

    More than 50 people gathered and walked in the Southeast Seminole Heights community Friday to pay respects to the victims of three shootings. The crowd took a moment of silence at the corner of 11th Street and East New Orleans where Monica Hoffa was found dead. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  5. Fennelly: What's not to like about Lightning's start?

    Lightning Strikes

    BRANDON — No one is engraving the Stanley Cup. No one has begun stuffing the league MVP ballot box for Nikita Kucherov.

    The Lightning, with a win tonight, would match the best start in franchise history, 7-1-1 in the 2003-04 Cup season.