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Whistleblower suit raises questions in Hillsborough employee's firing

TAMPA — A former Hillsborough County affordable housing official fired for alleged misdeeds claims some of the charges against him are flat-out false.

Court documents submitted on behalf of Michael Rowicki, who was fired in June, lend some credence to the assertion. The records suggest he was improperly accused of failing to disclose work he did outside his county employment.

The accusation, if true, could spell new trouble for County Administrator Pat Bean, already under close scrutiny from commissioners. She faces an evaluation in two weeks, after a year in which she drew criticism for raises she quietly doled out to several top county supervisors.

Problems in the Affordable Housing Office dogged her last year and led to the departure of several county officials.

Bean declined comment for this story, as did the County Attorney's Office, other than to tell a reporter to "be careful" with Rowicki's claims. But in a recent court deposition, she acknowledged that an investigative report justifying initial disciplinary action against Rowicki may have been flawed.

"I would consider it a problematic report," she testified. "And, yes, I would consider that poor performance" by the investigator.

But she said Rowicki was fired for a "pattern of problems," and the initial investigative findings that he questions had little, if anything, to do with his dismissal.

Rowicki's claims and Bean's testimony are included with pretrial pleadings that are part of a whistleblower lawsuit he filed against the county. He says he was fired as an executive planner after 14 years with the county for revealing potential problems in affordable housing.

Among the problems he helped reveal, Rowicki claims, was a threat Hillsborough faced in 2007 of losing $2.4 million in federal grant money. The county forfeited much of the money by missing a key deadline.

The problems, in part, ultimately led to Bean's removal of the county's affordable housing officer, Howie Carroll, from his duties.

Shortly after Rowicki says he voiced his concerns, he was placed on administrative leave with pay and later suspended without pay. An internal investigation concluded that, along with being a disruptive force in the office, he had failed to file conflict disclosures relating to two jobs outside his county work.

Rowicki was accused of failing to file a conflict form relating to sales work he did with Disney from 1997 to 2001. But the disclosure was actually in his personnel file, said his attorney, Cynthia Sass, in a pretrial filing that includes the signed form.

He was also accused of failing to disclose his brief role in a consulting company. But Sass argues her client withdrew from the company within 13 days, well within the 45-day notice requirement for disclosing a possible conflict.

Sass declined comment. But in a pretrial motion seeking to have Rowicki returned to his job while his case is pending, she said the county was aware of problems with the investigation and failed to address them.

"Rather than correct the reports and return Rowicki to his employment, the County left Rowicki languishing on leave and/or suspensions for nearly 13 months while it continued to conduct additional 'investigations,' i.e. witch hunts against him," Sass wrote.

Investigative reports indicate that Rowicki was initially targeted for examination by an outside contractor who accused him and two co-workers of a variety of misdeeds that included attempting to steer work to friends.

The investigation was handled by a special team, known as the Professional Responsibility Section, created by Bean to examine claims of wrongdoing by employees.

Rowicki's termination letter faults him for mishandling affordable housing projects, doing sloppy work and misrepresenting the status of one project in an e-mail. His lawyer claims in court filings she will be able to refute those claims as well.

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

Whistleblower suit raises questions in Hillsborough employee's firing 12/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 7:22am]
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