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Staffer emails describe 'dysfunctional' Hillsborough Children's Board

TAMPA — A culture of retribution and favoritism. Accusations of falsified contract documents and incomplete personnel files. One department that is a "worthless empire" and a leadership team with "an apparent contempt for procedural integrity and ethics."

Some employees of the taxpayer-funded Children's Board of Hillsborough County don't paint a flattering picture of their workplace, according to emails they have sent to the agency's chairman during the past month.

"The Children's Board is easily the most dysfunctional organization I've ever seen where the least talented, aging academic-minded directors are protected and praised, while the most talented, young, diverse professionals who can 'sell our brand' to the community are punished, shunned, put on 'administrative leave' or fired," one staffer wrote. "Morale is at an all-time low. Staff feels threatened to speak out."

Chris Brown, chairman of the agency's board of directors and an attorney for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, compiled portions of nearly 20 staff emails, which are on an agenda for a board workshop meeting today. He removed names and other identifying information, so it's unclear whether the same people sent multiple emails.

The Times asked the Children's Board administrators for comment on the emails, specifically the ones challenging the accuracy of contract documents. No one responded.

The Children's Board, a nearly $30 million agency that finances child welfare programs, has been under scrutiny in recent months, starting with the revelation that chief executive officer Luanne Panacek let a friend in after hours to spread holy oil in the public agency's building.

A series of Tampa Bay Times reports later showed problems with how agency executives handled at least $450,000 in no-bid contracts, and some social service agencies have complained about how the board has handled a new funding system.

At a board meeting last month, a frustrated Brown said he had serious concerns about the agency and encouraged staff members to contact him.

Some of the 55 or so staffers did.

One email made reference to Panacek's vow at a staff meeting, held just days after Brown made his comments, that she would not step down.

"Staff was mortified that she'd say that," an email says. "The defiance, along with the actions and behaviors of her leadership team, appears to trump the best interests of the organization" and similar agencies in other counties.

Another email raised alarms about the accuracy of no-bid contract documents filed by top administrators, including one completed after the Times asked about it last month.

The Times had requested documentation justifying two no-bid annual contracts totaling $50,000 to software company Centrasoft, which is owned by a former Children's Board staffer. Days after that request, Panacek said the agency had just noticed that such documentation, which is required by Children's Board policy, had never been completed. That week, she said, employees filled out the sole-source justification form and put it in the Centrasoft file.

But the staffer who wrote Brown said the newly completed form was inaccurate. That staffer refused a request by a top administrator, Laurie Bettinghouse, to sign off on the document.

"To attest to only one developer being able to work on well-written code is absurd, especially with KForce professional staffing located directly across the street from the Children's Board," the staffer wrote. "After I refused to sign, (Bettinghouse) stormed off to Luanne's office to discuss with Luanne and (chief financial officer) Tonia Williams."

The email went on to say that as Bettinghouse returned to her desk, she told Williams, "You sign mine, and I'll sign yours."

Other staffer emails raise questions about the quality of Children's Board performance reviews.

Employees fill out evaluations on one another, which are sent through a special software program. One employee told Brown he'd been asked to fill out an evaluation for communications director Carolyn Eastman in a different format for unknown reasons. Eastman, who earns $108,659, has been on medical leave since December.

"I gave her an embarrassingly poor evaluation … however it somehow failed to make Mrs. Eastman's personnel file," the staffer wrote. "When I met with Dr. Panacek to discuss my feelings, she shrugged it off and said that I wrote it 'from a bad place.' "

Last week, the Times requested the complete emails, along with identifying information, which were sent to Brown's Sheriff's Office account. The Sheriff's Office has not yet provided those records, which allowed Brown time to compile the emails in an anonymous form and share them at today's board workshop.

It's unclear what, if anything, board members will do about the emails. An organizational audit is underway and expected to be completed in about two months.

One staffer had a warning.

"If something doesn't happen soon with leadership, not just the CEO, the best staff will leave," the email said, "and you'll be left with the overpaid, nonperforming folks making the news and affecting board members' reputations."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

Staffer emails describe 'dysfunctional' Hillsborough Children's Board 05/17/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 17, 2012 11:48pm]
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