ST. PETERSBURG — When first told in August about the city's purchase of a Childs Park home owned by the aunt of a top city administrator, Mayor Bill Foster said he didn't think anything was amiss.
"I don't smell a scandal here," Foster said. "There are so many eyeballs on these transactions that I don't worry about issues where favoritism might be involved. It's not an issue here."
But now, with about two weeks before the release of an audit into the purchase, Foster said briefings with investigators have raised questions that could lead to disciplinary action.
Foster won't say what those questions are or who might be punished, but his latest comments contradict his initial ambivalence over a deal that involves the aunt of Goliath Davis, the city's senior administrator of community enrichment.
Foster said the audit — which was the first ordered by a mayor in at least nine years — had nothing to do with his rivalry through the years with Davis.
"It has do with the fact that the city may have overpaid for a piece of property and council may not have had the information it needed when they approved the sale," Foster said. "When I was on council, having that information was standard operating procedure."
Davis, who said auditors have questioned him, didn't want to speculate about Foster's interest in the audit.
"I don't think there will be disciplinary action against me because I haven't done anything wrong," Davis said. "If there's an audit that's complete, I haven't read it, I have no idea."
The audit analyzes the city's purchase of a home owned by Beverly Gray, Davis' aunt. The city paid Gray $80,000 for the green concrete block house that the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office gave a market value of $24,000.
Davis helped select the house for purchase so the city could make room for a waterfront park in Childs Park. He said he didn't know at the time it belonged to his aunt. When he found out, he said he removed himself from the acquisition process.
Still, Gray got a sales price that suggested favoritism. An e-mail from an employee negotiating the acquisition showed the city purposely paid an inflated price to Gray by using an outdated appraisal from 2007.
The backup information the City Council had when it approved the deal in December didn't indicate that Gray was Davis' aunt or that the city was justifying the price with a 2-year-old appraisal.
Rick Baker was mayor then. Foster didn't take office until January.
When the St. Petersburg Times reported the deal in August, Foster said, "I really can't second-guess what council and the previous administration did."
More than a week later, however, Foster ordered the audit. He still downplayed it, stating that its purpose was merely to assure "all the t's were crossed and the i's dotted."
The disclosure of this home purchase came weeks after Foster minimized another incident involving Davis.
In December, Davis was pulled over while weaving in his city car in Gulfport. He wasn't given a citation, but a police video was released months later that showed Davis taking a roadside sobriety test.
When the video was released in April, Foster said he stood behind Davis. But a month later, he revoked Davis' take-home car, which he had since 1996. Foster called it a cost-cutting move, yet at the same time he extended take-home car privileges for the Police Department.
City Auditor Bradley Scott said Foster has been briefed twice on the auditing.
To expedite the investigation, Foster assigned two auditors, rather than the typical one.
"The mayor wanted it out as quick as we could get it," said Scott.
According to City Administrator Tish Elston, it's been the only audit ordered by Foster. Baker never ordered one in his two terms as mayor, she said.
"Any time there was any questioning with how things were done, Baker left that to me," Elston said. "If there were issues with the organization, he wanted me to handle it."
This time, that wasn't the case with Foster, who Elston said "beat me to the punch" in ordering the audit.
Elston said she's waiting to see the final report before she comments.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.