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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 awhelan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8316.

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