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Severance check for Tampa Sports Authority director stirs more controversy

TAMPA — The people who pushed former Tampa Sports Authority executive director Henry Saavedra out the door this week essentially accused him of operating his own fiefdom.

Here's further proof, says the man who led the charge.

A day after Saavedra resigned under duress, he asked for and got what the agency's lawyer says was an unauthorized $83,986 check. That's the after-tax amount owed to him for six month's salary under his severance agreement.

Sports Authority bylaws say any check issued for more than $10,000 must have two signatures, and one must be from the board's chairman, vice chairman or secretary treasurer.

Saavedra's check carried just one signature — from director of finance Jeanette Baker.

Sports Authority chairman Vin Marchetti, who proposed firing Saavedra but offered to accept his resignation instead, called the incident extremely troubling.

"This is a very upsetting event," Marchetti said. "I just think it's indicative of what's happened at the Sports Authority in the past."

The agency's general counsel, Steve Anderson, went further, calling the check both illegal and invalid in a letter to Saavedra's lawyer Thursday that demanded the money be returned. He said Saavedra had not yet signed a separation agreement, and typically in such cases there is a time lag before severance payments are made in case one side or the other changes its mind.

Attempts to reach Saavedra late Friday were not successful.

His attorney, David Linesch, said there was "absolutely nothing illegal whatsoever" about the check. He called Marchetti's allegation sour grapes for some of the criticism he has received since helping force Saavedra's resignation Monday.

Linesch said payroll checks from the agency are always signed by just one person, though he was not able to say how many are issued for more than $10,000. In any event, he said, the board clearly authorized the payment with its public vote the day before accepting Saavedra's resignation and granting him six month's severance pay.

"This check was literally authorized by the board," Linesch said. "You got his job. Leave the guy alone."

Saavedra, 56, who made $209,622 for the job he held for 12 years, had come under fire in recent months from a bloc of Sports Authority members that represent Hillsborough County. (The board consists of appointees from the county, city of Tampa and the governor.)

The Sports Authority oversees Raymond James Stadium and three city golf courses. And while board members say Saavedra has done a good job of running things on the field, the county bloc has accused him of keeping them in the dark in other important matters, particularly related to agency finances.

Marchetti voiced a series of complaints in a written appeal to the rest of the board asking its members to fire Saavedra.

Most of the Sports Authority's city appointees have labeled the ouster a political power play by the county. One of those appointees, former Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn, described the continued back and forth as childish.

"It's beginning to look like my child's day care," Buckhorn said. "Let's finish this and get back to business."

Anderson confirmed that Saavedra signed a separation agreement late Friday and returned a portion of the payout he received earlier in the week — about $50,000. He had already spent more than $30,000 of it.

The returned money will be kept in escrow and given back to Saavedra in coming weeks. He resigned effective April 1.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Severance check for Tampa Sports Authority director stirs more controversy 03/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 12:21am]
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