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St. Petersburg officials downplay results of housing audit

ST. PETERSBURG — A recent audit found an apparent conflict of interest with a former St. Petersburg housing manager, but Mayor Bill Foster and other city officials downplayed the findings and vouched for the department and its director during a meeting Thursday.

The Sept. 27 audit found that Thomas de Yampert, a housing manager who resigned in January, had a potential conflict of interest when he hired city contractors to work on his rental properties and on his home. The audit confirmed findings in a St. Petersburg Times story last year that showed four city contractors who worked on de Yampert's personal property won contracts administered by his department, including:

• DRM Properties, which renovated two of de Yampert's rental properties in 2004, and, subsequently received $558,000 worth of business in rehabilitation loans okayed by his department.

• Earl Pfeiffer, a general contractor who worked on de Yampert's St. Pete Beach rentals and won $575,484 in contracts.

• J. Cerda Roofing, which worked on de Yampert's rentals from 2002 to 2004 and won more than $100,000 in contracts.

• Irok Construction, which in 2005 worked on a St. Pete Beach rental owned by de Yampert and won $649,061 in contracts between 2003 and 2008.

But council member Karl Nurse, who also owns rental property, said he didn't see a conflict for de Yampert.

"This strikes me as much ado about nothing," Nurse said. If de Yampert knows the contractors do good work, he shouldn't be prevented from hiring them on personal projects, he said.

Nurse questioned why the audit cited de Yampert's hiring for a city job of Joe Triolo, an employee at DRM Properties during the period in which the contractor had worked on his home. The audit stated that de Yampert should have at least disclosed his relationship with Triolo, who is the chairman of the Pinellas County Housing Authority, before hiring him. Nurse said there's no question that de Yampert should have hired Triolo.

"That's a duh," Nurse said. "The odds of succeeding are much better if you've seen their work."

Triolo was an example of how the audit "gets twisted up in a strange kind of way," Nurse said.

"We agree," Foster said.

The report made other findings, including the lack of any formal policy regulating awarding of bids; that the department bought property without getting City Council approval; and the department's hiring of a former employee without advertising the job so others could apply.

The audit also stated that the supervisor who remained in his job, Joshua Johnson, provided little oversight of de Yampert.

"Had the director been a little more involved, it might not have happened," said Brad Scott, the city auditor.

Foster, who wasn't mayor when de Yampert's office awarded contractors the money, said safeguards are now in place that would prevent any improprieties. From now on, for instance, Johnson will have to fill out a checklist that will show he's made the necessary reviews.

He then strongly endorsed the job done by Johnson and lauded his record of complying with federal grant regulations.

Council member Herb Polson didn't comment on the findings. Instead, he repeated several times that the audit would have been done anyway, regardless of the Times story. After the story last year, Foster moved up the audit, which had already been scheduled.

"It wasn't because the sky was falling," Polson said to Foster. "It wasn't an allegation of impropriety that caused you to do this."

Only council member Leslie Curran said she still had concerns about the department.

"It was a good audit and Josh's grant compliance is fabulous," Curran said. "I just want to make sure this won't happen again."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

St. Petersburg officials downplay results of housing audit 10/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 11:45pm]
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