Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

St. Petersburg landscape architect suspended after audit turns up conflict of interest

Hammond was found to be too close to Morelli Landscaping.

Courtesy of Ch. 10

Hammond was found to be too close to Morelli Landscaping.

ST. PETERSBURG — Longtime city project coordinator Elizabeth Hammond has been suspended without pay for a week after a city investigation found she was too cozy with a landscaping company getting city work.

Although Hammond, who manages city landscaping contracts, wasn't on the payroll at Morelli Landscaping, she did landscaping work on projects the company also handled — and neglected to notify her supervisors at City Hall, the investigation found.

The investigation was the second Hammond had faced in as many months over allegations that her relationship with Morelli Landscaping constituted a conflict of interest.

City employees are allowed to seek outside employment, but they must file requests to do so — and Hammond's hadn't been renewed since she filed it 14 years ago. Because Hammond was conducting business in St. Petersburg without a city business tax license, the audit said, she also violated a city code.

"I was disappointed in what I think was a lapse in judgment. Her relationship with them was a little too close for comfort," said city Public Works Administrator Mike Connors. He said the allegations came as a surprise, adding that Hammond was otherwise a model employee and dedicated public servant.

Hammond, a 47-year-old licensed landscape architect, has worked for the city in various capacities for 17 years. She makes $78,832 per year.

The initial investigation was sparked by an April e-mail to the city from another local landscaper, alleging that Hammond was working for Morelli Landscaping on the side. Morelli Landscaping signed a $1.7 million contract with the city in January to provide basic landscaping services, according to city records.

That investigation concluded that although Hammond seemed to have a closer-than-normal relationship with the company — she frequently notarized documents for the company — there was no real conflict of interest.

But city officials began a second investigation in June after WTSP-Ch. 10 news unearthed blueprints from a Madeira Beach condominium complex that Morelli Landscaping worked on in 2005.

Blueprints for Belle Arte Condos on the Gulf show Hammond's signature on landscape plans and list her as the project's landscape architect.

Joe Morelli, the owner of Morelli Landscaping, said Belle Arte's developer needed a licensed landscape architect to draw plans for a landscaping upgrade at the complex, and he recommended several people who might be able to do so. From that group, the developer selected Hammond, he said.

The city's second investigation determined that Hammond prepared landscape plans for eight nonresidential projects and three residential projects between 1997 and 2005. Morelli Landscaping worked on seven of those nonresidential projects, and Morelli told developers on three of those projects that Hammond could draw landscape plans for them, according to the audit.

That, city auditors concluded, was a clear conflict of interest.

Morelli said he was embarrassed by the series of events and wished he could "go back and do it over."

In the subsequent investigation, city auditors chided Hammond and Morelli for not informing them of Morelli's referrals during the first probe. Morelli said he didn't realize that referring Hammond to developers was a conflict of interest.

"I don't look at that as a conflict of interest. My interest was getting people together to finish a project," he said.

City auditor Brad Scott recommended that Hammond be carefully supervised when approving contracts for Morelli Landscaping in the future, and that she renew her forms seeking outside employment.

Connors said he'd follow Scott's recommendations, adding that Hammond will no longer work on Morelli Landscaping contracts, but will focus instead on state grants and contracts that don't involve Morelli.

Still, Scott said, Hammond's conflict of interest didn't affect her decisionmaking for the city.

"If we had found evidence that she had, for instance, given more work to Mr. Morelli, based on those connections, it would have been a lot more serious," he said.

Hammond, who returns to work Friday, did not return calls for comment.

Aubrey Whelan can be reached at or (727) 893-8316.

The 15th annual Neighborhood Times Social Calendar will publish Sept. 11. Send details of parties and charity benefits, including the sponsoring organization, date, time, venue (with street address), admission price and publishable contact information. The deadline for submissions is Aug. 15. Send to Mary Jane Park at (subject line: SOCIAL CALENDAR) or St. Petersburg Times, 490 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

St. Petersburg landscape architect suspended after audit turns up conflict of interest 07/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 4:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals


    TAMPA — Express lanes may not be coming to downtown Tampa after all. Or at least not to the stretch of Interstate 275 that goes north through Bearss Avenue.

    Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman discusses the new interstate options with V.M. Ybor resident Chris Vela (left), Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and HNTB consultant Chloe Coney during a Tampa Bay Express meeting Monday night at the Barrymore Hotel. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON  |  Times]
  2. No lack of issues facing St. Petersburg's six council candidates


    ST. PETERSBURG — The six candidates for City Council gathered Monday evening in the very chamber to which they aspire to serve.

    St. Petersburg City Council candidates (from left)  Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless in District 2; Jerick Johnston and incumbent council member Darden Rice in District 4; and Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll of District 6. All six candidates appeared at Monday night's forum at City Hall sponsored by the League of Women Voters. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]

  3. Iraq's Kurds vote on independence, raising regional fears


    IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Kurds voted Monday in a landmark referendum on supporting independence, a move billed by the Kurdish leadership as an exercise in self-determination but viewed as a hostile act by Iraq's central government. Neighboring Turkey even threatened a military response.

    People celebrate Monday after voting closed in a referendum on independence in Irbil, Iraq.
  4. North Korean diplomat says Trump has 'declared war'


    UNITED NATIONS — North Korea's top diplomat said Monday that President Donald Trump's weekend tweet was a "declaration of war" and North Korea has the right to retaliate by shooting down U.S. bombers, even in international airspace.

    North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, center, speaks outside the U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York on Monday.
  5. Pinellas grants St. Pete's request to add millions to pier budget

    Local Government

    Times Staff Writer

    The Pinellas County Commission has granted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's request to dedicate millions more toward the city's new pier.

    The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday  voted 7-1 to appropriate $17.6 million for the over-water portion of the Pier District. This is a rendering of what the new Pier District could look like. [Courtesy of St. Petersburg]