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Tampa City Council candidate steered grant money to self, friends

Michael Ciftci hangs solar light bulbs in the sun in Haiti last month for a state-funded relief effort. Ciftci rerouted nearly half the project’s money, the state says.

Courtesy of Kurt Mann

Michael Ciftci hangs solar light bulbs in the sun in Haiti last month for a state-funded relief effort. Ciftci rerouted nearly half the project’s money, the state says.

TAMPA — Michael Ciftci had a plan: build 50 green homes in Haiti, employing 75 Haitians and 75 Floridians.

It was a sustainable-energy, nation-building project — all for $100,000, he told state officials. In April, it slipped into the state budget and rode untouched to the governor's signing.

A month later, plans changed.

Ciftci, now a candidate for the citywide District 3 Tampa City Council seat, rerouted nearly half the money to himself and three colleagues, state documents show. Another $39,000 went to green energy conferences they run.

Projects are often tweaked for practicality, but in this instance, Ciftci overhauled his proposal 34 days after its approval for state funds. For more than two weeks, state officials have declined to answer questions on why the state authorized the new plan.

By the time the state signed the contract, the Haiti project had disintegrated. Ciftci's nonprofit group, United for a Sustainable America (UFSA), received $12,000 to upgrade an orphanage with green materials. So far, that money has brought just 140 solar light bulbs to Haiti. UFSA officials said Ciftci mismanaged the project, but they are now working to fix it. The organization suspended Ciftci last month.

For his part, Ciftci called his original plan a "rough draft." He said he deliberately asked legislators to make the line item vague, so he and the state could later decide how exactly to use the money. And he defended his team's $48,000 salary because it meets state guidelines.

• • •

On the campaign trail, Ciftci describes himself as a green business consultant. He co-founded Sustainable Strategies, which brings green products to market. He is also a founding member of UFSA, a nonprofit that organizes "green business summits."

But Ciftci, 27, entered the field only 15 months ago. His real expertise is politics.

In high school, he worked his stepfather's campaign for the Okeechobee School Board. By 2007, he was the West Florida director of John McCain's presidential primary campaign. That brought him to Tampa, and led him to local developer and political power broker Donald Phillips.

For two years, Ciftci worked as Phillips' political adviser. In December 2008, Phillips created a political action committee to fund his preferred candidates and paid Ciftci $26,450 to run it. When Ciftci helped start UFSA, Phillips was named a founding board member.

But it was a different big donor who brought Ciftci unwanted attention: Bobby Thompson, head of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. A St. Petersburg Times investigation found "Thompson" used that phony name to channel money into illegal campaign donations. He is now a fugitive wanted on felony charges from Ohio.

The Times reported on Phillips' and Ciftci's connections to the association last year. In response, UFSA removed the pair from its board.

Ciftci said he and Thompson were acquaintances who talked politics. When Thompson once needed bodies for political events, Ciftci offered two friends.

Months later, one of those friends and Ciftci appeared in photos on the Navy Veterans website, labeled as "Association representatives." They were doing relief work in Haiti. Ciftci said the association sponsored the friend's trip, but not his. Ciftci went to Haiti as a humanitarian, he said, and left with an idea.

• • •

Last year, in a slideshow e-mailed to lawmakers and state officials, Ciftci outlined a perfect marriage: a construction market in Haiti and unemployed builders in Florida. He requested $650,000 to play matchmaker.

Sen. Mike Fasano got the request, but never responded. Three days later, $100,000 for Ciftci's group appeared in the final budget offer from a conference committee led by Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City.

But an inquiry into which legislator backed the line item only yielded finger pointing and forgetfulness.

Fasano said he didn't notice it. Glorioso said his aide remembers Rep. David Rivera putting it in.

A spokeswoman for the now U.S. Rep. Rivera, R-Miami, said Rivera vaguely remembers the project but does not recall sponsoring or co-sponsoring it.

Ciftci said a fellow UFSA board member, state Rep. Darryl Rouson, "kept the governor from vetoing it. He was our guy on the whole thing."

The St. Petersburg Democrat denied Ciftci's account: "I am smart enough to know that I cannot lobby state agencies for organizations or things that I am on the board of."

Rouson's answer?

"David Rivera earmarked it. It was his project."

• • •

With a foot in the budget door, Ciftci was now determined to stay there.

In a detailed project summary sent to state officials, Ciftci showed $100,000 alone would pay for 50 green homes in Haiti, creating 150 jobs. He also insisted the project would attract additional aid money to build a water treatment system there, employing more Floridians.

"The Project will Revitalize Florida's devastated construction and development industries by creating high wage engineering & construction jobs," he wrote.

Gov. Charlie Crist's red pen ultimately passed over the project.

A month later, Ciftci shifted course.

State e-mails show he forwarded the initial slideshow to Katherine Morrison, the state Office of Trade, Tourism and Economic Development official overseeing the funding.

"While only a portion of the appropriation will be used for our Haiti redevelopment project, this will give you a detailed picture of our plans," he wrote.

Two days later, Morrison responded with the more specific report Ciftci had sent the state weeks earlier.

"This is the document that the funding was based upon," she wrote. "Therefore, the $100,000 should be used to fund the economic development projects in Haiti."

Ciftci promptly replied with a new plan: The Haiti project would get $25,000 and three green summits would get $75,000. The sponsoring state lawmakers, he said, endorsed the plan.

Morrison said she would check with the budget office. A week later, the state was on board.

In late September, UFSA and the state signed the $100,000 contract: $13,000 for each of three green business summits; $12,000 each to Ciftci and three UFSA colleagues; $12,000 to upgrade a Haitian orphanage; and $1,000 for a documentary on the humanitarian effort. Ciftci's group must provide time sheets and invoices for payment.

With the state covering expenses, UFSA stands to profit from its summits through sponsorships.

The group said it made $800 in October on its first state-funded summit in Tampa. Two lawmakers got top billing on the event flier: Rep. Rivera and Rep. Rouson.

Rivera's spokeswoman said he did not attend. Rouson called it "poorly attended."

• • •

Last month, Ciftci went to Haiti with a team of six: his girlfriend, a colleague, two engineers and two filmmakers.

The team distributed 262 solar light bulbs. (The state paid for 140; the film company provided the rest.) The engineers, from PBS&J in Tampa, measured the orphanage's energy usage to identify ways to save money. That audit became the core of the project, touted as a way to draw future funds. The team also pitched in to buy three solar-powered ovens.

Orphanage director Miriam Frederick praised the project, noting the solar bulbs have brought light to many displaced families.

Five other state-financed products have been stalled. A fuel cell, for which the state was billed $4,500, has still not been purchased, said UFSA director Adam Schlachter. He cited compatibility and shipping issues, but the group ultimately holds Ciftci accountable.

Ciftci said the logistics of getting products installed in Haiti are complicated and he did not foresee many of the obstacles.

The state paid Ciftci $3,000 for the project. UFSA officers Michael Kane, Phillip Krnjeu and Christopher Felkamp also each received $3,000, though they did not travel to Haiti. Of the other six who did, some volunteered, and others paid to go.

Late on New Year's Day, that team was gearing up for the trip and Ciftci was updating his campaign Twitter account. Just before midnight, he tweeted: "Overnight drive to the Fort Lauderdale airport where we fly to Haiti to help orphans and create jobs for Tampa."

Times staff writer Lee Logan and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jnicas@sptimes.com.

Tampa City Council candidate steered grant money to self, friends 02/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 19, 2011 10:47pm]
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