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St. Petersburg mayor: Council intentionally kept in the dark about home purchase

Beverly Gray was paid $80,000 for her home in Childs Park in 2009, though the Pinellas County property appraiser put its value at $24,000. A second appraisal was not done.

LARA CERRI | Times

Beverly Gray was paid $80,000 for her home in Childs Park in 2009, though the Pinellas County property appraiser put its value at $24,000. A second appraisal was not done.

ST. PETERSBURG — City officials deviated from their normal practices when they purchased a Childs Park home owned by a relative of a top city administrator last year, an internal audit revealed.

The city paid Beverly Gray $80,000 for a house in Childs Park that was given a market value of $24,000 by the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office. The city justified the 2009 purchase by using an outdated appraisal from 2007.

Gray is a distant relative of Goliath Davis, the city's senior administrator of community enrichment. In fact, it was he who identified the house for purchase to make way for a park. He said he did not know then that Gray lived there.

The audit, released Wednesday, found that the city's Real Estate and Property Management Department left out the appraisal data for Gray's green concrete block house when it presented the deal to the City Council in December.

"This is inconsistent with routine information previously submitted to City Council for the other Childs Park Initiative properties reviewed which always included the date of the appraisal and a copy of the appraisal itself," the audit says.

Auditors also said they could not find documentation to validate why city officials didn't get a second appraisal for the Gray property.

Mayor Bill Foster, who ordered an audit after the St. Petersburg Times reported on the purchase in August, said he was surprised by the real estate department's omission of key information to the council.

"I cannot help but conclude that this omission was an intentional act," he wrote in a memo to council members. "It's against the way I do business," he told the Times Wednesday. "You cannot say in the history of this department that what happened … with Gray was just an oops."

Still, Foster, who was not yet in office when the deal took place, said no one in the real estate department is likely to be disciplined. But the episode is prompting Foster to recommend new rules pertaining to property acquisitions and the disclosure of conflicts of interests.

The audit — which was the first ordered by a mayor in at least nine years — also exonerates Davis. He removed himself from the acquisition process when he found out the home was owned by Gray, the audit said.

The audit noted that although Davis and Gray refer to each other as aunt and nephew, they are not related by blood.

Auditors said they didn't find evidence Davis was involved in any of the negotiations related to this acquisition or directly influenced its purchase price.

"We did not find an actual conflict of interest with this transaction, however we do believe that the appearance of a conflict of interest may exist," the audit says.

Davis could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Foster said on Wednesday that he's decided against discipline because the audit revealed there was no written policy requiring that appraisals be within a specific number of months of an acquisition date. The city's law department also concluded that no state ethics laws were broken.

Bruce Grimes, the director of the real estate department, was out of the office Wednesday and could not be reached for comment. But the department did address auditors findings in the report, acknowledging that the omission of the appraisal data was an "anomaly."

"It was a mistake by REPM staff," the department wrote.

Foster and the auditors have recommended new procedures and rules, including a written policy that says future appraisals can't be more than a year old, all appraisal information must be submitted to the council and city employees must document in writing any actual, potential or perceived conflicts of interest to their supervisor.

Council members Bill Dudley and Herb Polson said they support Foster's plans for new procedures.

"I think that putting a policy in place to make sure something like this doesn't happen is obviously needed," said Dudley, who admitting having mixed feelings about the issue. "I think we need to try to move on."

St. Petersburg mayor: Council intentionally kept in the dark about home purchase 11/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 11, 2010 7:33am]
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