ST. PETERSBURG — Rigged bids. Favored contractors. Exploitation of the poor.
As allegations go, they don't get much more explosive than the ones made by the retired math teacher in a letter to the city on July 13, 2008.
Eileen Julian, 67, charged that a St. Petersburg housing manager played favorites with contractors because she felt that city workers — at his direction — forced a contractor on her who then overbilled for home repairs.
"This letter is to outline your campaign to exclude and or discriminate against bidders who are not part of the select group of contractors you permit to perform on (city) projects," Julian stated. "(And) your aiding and abetting your favorite contractors to steal from your clients in this poverty program."
Julian's suspicions about Thomas K. de Yampert's motives were a hunch, fed by numerous interactions she had with the housing manager and his employees over several months as she sought to renovate her Harbordale home using a city assistance program.
What she didn't know then was that de Yampert did have personal ties to the contractor she felt was ripping her off. De Yampert used DRM Properties in 2004 to renovate two of his rental homes in St. Pete Beach. Public records show the St. Petersburg company pulled permits for more than $10,000 in work.
Since 2004, DRM has received $558,000 worth of business in rehabilitation loans approved by de Yampert's department.
Public records show at least three other contractors who do business with the city's housing department also worked on de Yampert's rental property, which includes three homes in St. Pete Beach and one in Gulfport.
• Earl Pfeiffer, a general contractor, pulled a permit for a $2,450 roof job on a rental de Yampert owns in St. Pete Beach. Between 2004 and 2009, Pfeiffer won $834,068 in contracts from de Yampert's department.
• J. Cerda Roofing pulled permits describing more than $10,000 of roofing work it did on rentals between 2002 and 2004. Cerda won more than $100,000 in contracts administered by the city. De Yampert blamed Cerda for a roof collapse at one of his rentals in 2004 and sued the company. The city subsequently removed Cerda from a list of qualified contractors and it has since gone out of business.
• Irok Construction pulled a permit for a $14,000 garage renovation in 2005 at a St. Pete Beach rental de Yampert owns. City records show Irok won $649,061 in contracts administered by the city between 2003 and 2008.
De Yampert, 62, insists he never sought favorable treatment from these contractors or steered them city work. He doesn't hire contractors, he said; homeowners pick the winning bid.
Here's how it works: The city oversees jobs to repair homes owned by people with limited income who qualify for zero interest loans. The city estimates how much repair work is needed, then invites approved contractors to bid on the work. To be approved, contractors must have proper licensing, insurance and financing capability. City employees explain the bids, but don't make recommendations. The homeowner then selects a bid.
But according to an examination of city documents and interviews with officials, the Times found that checks and balances weren't in place to protect the millions of dollars in public money flowing through the housing department.
There were no formal procedures in place to govern the bidding process. Bids came in past deadline and unsealed.
There is no record that de Yampert, a 16-year employee, disclosed potential conflicts with contractors to his supervisors until after Julian complained about his conduct. His personnel file didn't include information about his rental properties, including documents about how the potential conflicts were addressed.
And de Yampert's supervisors didn't investigate Julian's allegations — despite harboring their own concerns about his properties. A state agency also declined to look into it, even though an investigator expressed concern about the lack of safeguards in the city's housing department.
City Administrator Tish Elston said she trusts that de Yampert didn't take advantage of his city position, but said she regrets the appearance of conflict.
"Tom's been a good employee," she said. "I'd say in anything you do in the future, make sure your bases are covered. You don't want your work clouded by innuendo. If people can't reconcile things, there's always that innuendo."
• • •
Former deputy mayor Mike Dove oversaw the housing department until 2007.
He said he once told de Yampert that the general public might suspect he was getting a "deal" from contractors that did business with his department.
"There was some concern that Tom owned properties in the city," Dove said. "I told him there was a perception. Tom understood that perception and sold the properties he had in the city."
Dove doesn't remember when he warned de Yampert, saying it could have been in the late '90s or early 2000s. He said a subsequent investigation and legal opinion cleared de Yampert of any conflict, but he doesn't remember when that took place.
No public record of any such investigation could be found so it's hard to know why the city decided de Yampert's use of those contractors didn't pose a conflict of interest.
Florida law, as cited by the Florida Commission on Ethics, prohibits public officers or employees of an agency to have any "contractual relationships with a business entity or agency doing business with or regulated by the city."
De Yampert, who's retiring from his $85,000 job on Jan. 14, said he remembers the conversation with Dove, but that the appearance of conflict wasn't the reason he sold his rentals. He said he sold them to free up cash to buy rentals in St. Pete Beach.
However, public records show de Yampert sold his homes in St. Petersburg between 2003 and 2004 — after he had already purchased rentals in St. Pete Beach.
While Dove's recollection is correct that a legal opinion was issued on the rentals, it didn't address whether de Yampert should allow contractors that do business with his department to work on them. Rather, a 2003 Florida Commission on Ethics opinion said de Yampert could sell his properties to homeowners assisted by his department.
Ultimately, de Yampert didn't sell to anyone getting a loan through his department.
"I don't want any appearance of any conflict," he said.
De Yampert's seeming indifference about his relationship with contractors vanished in 2009. For the first time — after using city contractors on his private rentals for years — he asked the city attorney's office if he could hire a roofer that does business with his department.
"It was five years later," de Yampert said. "You make different decisions as you go through. Hindsight is always 20-20, isn't it?"
De Yampert said in 2003 and 2004 — when he was in his early 50s and nearing his 10th year working for the city — he was too inexperienced to understand his rentals would pose conflicts.
Did he err in not asking permission for all the previous jobs?
"It was poor judgment," he said. "It was a bad decision on my part. But there was no quid pro quo."
After that 2009 request, an assistant city attorney concluded that no law prohibited de Yampert from using a city contractor. He did, however, recommend that de Yampert take steps to ensure "transparency."
He recommended that de Yampert get at least three bids on the job, get the contractor to sign an affidavit stating the terms and price of his bid would be available to the general public, and for de Yampert to write a memo explaining his actions to top city administrators.
In an interview this week, de Yampert said he did what was recommended but could not find the paperwork. It wasn't in his personnel file.
De Yampert's boss, Joshua Johnson, who sat next to de Yampert during the interview, said he didn't know where documents were either.
"I can't tell you where I put it," he said. "I have too many things spinning around my head."
The next day, Johnson said he never received a memo.
"I've asked Tom if he's written one," Johnson said. "Right now he can't remember if he's written one."
Elston, the city's top administrator, said she doesn't recall receiving such a memo. "That doesn't mean I didn't, but I don't remember," she said.
The contractor in question, Earl Pfeiffer, said he doesn't remember signing such an affidavit.
"I remember (de Yampert) said something about it," he said. "Whether or not I actually signed it, I don't know. I'm not giving him any particular favor because of his position."
• • •
Eileen Julian spent 20 years teaching math to junior high schoolers. She's no pushover.
"The city deals mostly with old people who don't understand them, or who can't express themselves," she said. "They didn't expect someone like me."
She wanted new windows, a roof and kitchen. She applied for repairs through the city's zero interest loan program. About 20 contractors bid on the $40,000 project in March 2009, but she said she was only shown six.
When a city worker sat down with her to explain the six bids, Julian said he circled the one that provided the biggest contingency, money set aside for cost overruns or complications.
She signed the contract with DRM a day later.
Before work began, Julian called Home Depot and Lowe's and said she was quoted prices much lower than DRM's. She asked to inspect the bid documents more closely.
That's when she saw the fax of the cover sheet on DRM's bid.
"Sorry so late my fax was down," DRM's president, Dana McGee, had scrawled on the cover sheet. The time stamp showed it arrived at the city at 8:30 p.m., nearly 3 ½ hours after bids were due.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, something is going on,' " Julian said. "DRM's late in bidding, and then they're overbidding. The city's forcing him on me."
Julian terminated the contract.
McGee said her home improvement store quotes didn't include labor costs, and said he too wanted to cancel the project because Julian was becoming a "pain in the neck." He resents her allegation that he's given de Yampert any breaks on his rentals.
"I treated (de Yampert) like a normal customer," he said.
After firing DRM, Julian wrote the letter to de Yampert alleging favoritism.
Meanwhile, she tried to hire a new contractor through the city.
That's when, she said, the city began gutting her project, saying she didn't qualify for certain improvements.
She continued to complain to anyone who would listen.
City officials declined, deciding it was better that Julian get an independent agency's review.
"Someone could have said, 'Oh yeah, because they are a city employee, you slanted your review,'" Elston, the top city administrator, said.
Julian sent complaints to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Gulfcoast Legal Services, and the Southern Strategy Legal Group out of Gainesville. None of the agencies could help.
The Department of Community Affairs looked at Julian's complaint before deciding it couldn't do anything, either. Many of the allegations — including the charge that de Yampert favored contractors who did work on his rentals — were outside its jurisdiction.
"If she thinks there's corruption in that city, I can't do anything about that," said Candie Fuller, the inspector general for the DCA. "We have no control over the city and how they run that program."
The state also dropped the case in part because the city had no formal rules for bids, therefore the agency could not determine whether they were followed.
"They should have procedures," Fuller said. "That's just good business practice, internal controls, accountability. I was surprised they don't."
While de Yampert and Johnson say there were checks and balances in place to prevent the favoring of contractors, there were no procedures in place until recently.
De Yampert said the city imposed a new bid policy in December 2007.
But when it was pointed out that the DCA concluded there was no bid procedure in place by March 2009, de Yampert said he didn't know when it was implemented. Johnson said it was late 2008 or early 2009, but then later said he didn't know.
Now bids are accepted only if they meet deadline, they said. Now, two rehabilitation officers are present when a bid is opened. Now, bids are sealed.
"It's a better way to do business," de Yampert said.
Then why didn't they do it earlier?
"Because that's the way we always did business," he said.
Julian is still waiting for someone to take an interest in her case.
"I thought the DCA was going to come back with something that meant something," Julian said. "And they tell me there's no bid procedures, so there's nothing they can do. I'm thinking, 'What?'
"We're talking about millions of dollars, and they don't have a procedure?" Julian said. "The (DCA) hadn't refuted anything, and this is their conclusion? They will just move on?"
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8037.