TAMPA — With his 16 arrests, prosecutors called Keena Watts a habitual offender. He quit school in the 10th grade and sold drugs, sometimes near schools and churches.
Repeated arrests might keep others from finding a job. Not Watts.
Until his 16th arrest, he worked for the Corporation to Develop Communities, an east Tampa program funded with public money and run by his mother.
In late June, Watts, 23, was sentenced to nearly a year in a Hillsborough jail and two years of probation after two arrests in which police caught him with marijuana, then cocaine.
Between arrests, he worked at the Audrey L. Spotford Youth and Family Center, the CDC's headquarters, as an intake specialist, often dealing with clients who had drug histories.
His mother, Toni Watts, has been chief executive officer since 2006.
She declined to discuss her son with the Times.
The CDC's board chairman, Albert Lee, who is a vice president for Fifth Third Bank, said he "expressed disappointment" to Toni Watts over the matter. He said he advised her not to comment because he was afraid she would get emotional.
"I think what she was trying to do for her son is what almost any other mother would be trying to do for their child: If I can put him in a situation where I can have some supervision over him during the day, or I can have some influence on him to try and change him rather than leave him to his own devices, then I think that's what anybody would do," he said.
Lee said he told Watts she should be more "judicious" about hiring relatives of staff. But he said he didn't think Keena Watts' employment hurt the organization.
"It would have been more disconcerting if I had found out that he had done some of that stuff while he was on CDC property," Lee said.
Keena Watts was actively selling drugs while employed by the CDC, jail and court records show, but there are no allegations that he did so on CDC property.
It's unclear whether Lee learned of Keena Watts' arrests from the Times or from Toni Watts. He did not return phone messages seeking clarification.
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The CDC collects grant money to provide jobs and housing in east Tampa. The organization earned a reputation sweeping away drug corners with anti-drug marches in the early 1990s.
Eighty-five percent of its budget in 2006, about $1.7-million, came from federal funding. More recent federal figures were unavailable. This year, the organization drew $47,250 from Hillsborough County and $187,124 from the city of Tampa.
Today the Tampa City Council is scheduled to approve a $70,000 grant and $625,000 loan to the CDC for affordable housing and other projects.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has helped the CDC obtain federal grants. The Times requested an interview with Castor about Keena Watts' arrests, but she did not respond.
Mayor Pam Iorio did not return a call asking about CDC hiring practices.
Gary Snyder, a board member of the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy, saw cause for concern when a reporter described the CDC's employment of Watts' troubled son.
"This is a small agency in the community that is probably doing good but has bad judgment. And no governance or poor governance, this issue lies with the board," said Snyder, who writes and manages the newsletter Nonprofit Imperative. "If that executive director did not tell the board, then the board has to take some disciplinary action."
Lee would not say whether Toni Watts faced disciplinary action. He called it an internal matter.
Keena Watts' job as an intake specialist was an entry level position at the CDC with front desk duties. He was paid about $8 an hour, Lee said. His mother was not his direct supervisor, Lee said.
Lee said the organization has no problem hiring entry-level workers who have criminal backgrounds.
"It's kind of difficult for us to suggest to other people that someone needs to hire these folks if we're not willing to do some of those things ourselves," Lee said. "The nature of the community development corporation nonprofit is that they will do the things that other entities aren't willing to do."
Seven out of 10 of the CDC's clients are ex-offenders.
Lee said having ex-offenders on staff helps the organization connect with others in the same straits.
"It would be akin to a homeless shelter having all people who work there who have never experienced homelessness," Lee said.
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Keena Watts initially agreed to a jail interview for this story but declined at the last moment.
His criminal career and his CDC career first crossed paths on Oct. 4, 2006, when Tampa police arrested him on four cocaine charges, including possession with intent to deliver near a church and school.
On jail records, he listed his employer as Nehemiah Coin Laundry, which the CDC owned from 1999 to 2007. It was the nonprofit's first east Tampa neighborhood revitalization project, transforming an abandoned laundry into a full-service business with 25 washing machines, 24 dryers, a children's playroom, a community meeting room and at least five jobs for the neighborhood, according to the organization's Web site.
After the October 2006 arrest, Watts pleaded guilty to three charges: purchase, possession and delivery of cocaine, court records show. He received credit for time served.
Jail records state that he was unemployed at the time of his next arrest, on June 25, 2007.
But he reported that he was employed as a CDC intake specialist on Feb. 11, when Tampa police pulled over a Chevrolet Cavalier on traffic offenses.
As police approached the car, they saw Watts, the driver, spray air freshener in the back seat, a report says. A search found 11 small bags of marijuana, including 10 hidden in a trunk speaker box.
Watts admitted owning the drugs, and he told police that he tossed a marijuana cigar from the car before the traffic stop, according to an arrest report.
When his mother arrived on the scene, police told Toni Watts that her son had just taken responsibility for the drugs, absolving a passenger who rode with him.
Toni Watts turned to Keena and asked, according to police reports, "Why would you do that?"
Keena replied, "It's all mine. Why would I get him in trouble?"
Toni Watts then allowed her son to continue to work at the CDC, jail records show.
He listed his employer as the CDC the next time he was arrested, which was less than two months later.
In that arrest, police say they saw Keena Watts sell $40 worth of crack cocaine in the parking lot of a Sunoco gas station.
Lee said his mother fired him afterward, saying she had "had it" with his troubles.
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]