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Suspended HART chief rented condo from lawyer hired by transit agency

TAMPA — The chief executive of HART rented a Harbour Island condominium for a year from a lawyer under contract with the transit agency — an arrangement that is among several allegations against David Armijo under investigation.

Armijo was suspended with pay in March after at least three employees accused him of numerous workplace violations, including conflicts of interest, favoritism in hiring and vendor selection, unauthorized trips and retaliation against employees who voiced concerns.

The claims allege that Armijo created a hostile workplace. But the specific complaints — as well as those who made them — remain shielded behind state whistle-blower protection laws.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who is on the HART board of directors, confirmed board members are looking into the rental agreement as part of the complaints.

Armijo said he took proper steps to make sure the rental wasn't a conflict of interest and asked HART's then-attorney, Clark Jordan-Holmes, about the arrangement before he signed a lease. Jordan Holmes saw no problem, Armijo said.

Jordan-Holmes didn't return several messages from the St. Petersburg Times over two days.

Armijo oversees an annual $62 million budget and earned $185,000 a year to run Hillsborough's transit system that has buses and streetcars. His five-year contract runs through 2012.

In September 2007, Armijo arrived in Tampa and hired Traci Burns, a broker specializing in waterfront luxury homes and condominiums.

She found him three rentals on Harbour Island that he liked, Armijo said.

One at 760 Coral Reef Drive belonged to Mark Levitt, a labor lawyer with Allen Norton & Blue P.A., which has offices in Tampa and Winter Park.

Since May 2006, Levitt has been HART's contracted labor attorney. He works under a five-year contract the HART board approved that pays his firm $185 an hour, with a one-time 5 percent raise written into the contract. The contract existed before Armijo joined HART.

Levitt, who had been based in Tampa for years, moved to his firm's Winter Park office and said he needed a tenant for his two-story, three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,521-square-foot condo that a deed shows he bought in 2005 for $375,000.

"He was coming into town looking for a place and didn't want to buy at the time," Levitt said. "I know he was looking around, and I don't recall if somebody at HART might have mentioned it to him or whether I did."

Armijo said his real estate agent showed him Levitt's home through Levitt's rental agent. Levitt said he wasn't present.

Nor was he there, Levitt said, when Armijo signed a lease, which was written by Levitt's rental agent.

Rent was $2,100 a month for one year, Armijo said.

(Similar-sized Harbour Island rentals are currently priced between $1,695 and $2,500 a month, said Alicia McLendon of Turnbridge Properties of Tampa.)

"It was marketplace rent, and people who came in after him paid the same thing," Levitt said. "It was an arm's-length transaction. It was market conditions. Nothing unusual about it."

"I was not working with Mark at that time," Armijo added. "I had no direct relationship with him as part of the job."

Armijo said HART's use of Levitt as a labor lawyer has been declining over the past three years, something the billing figures bear out.

In 2006, Levitt's firm was paid $105,286. In 2007 — the year Armijo moved into Levitt's home — HART paid the firm $100,974. The next year, when Armijo would have still been in Levitt's home, the law firm received $56,996.

In subsequent years, Levitt's firm was paid $14,122 and $26,848 respectively. Levitt's contract is up this year, and his firm has put in a bid to be retained.

HART's employee handbook has a section that includes a broad conflict-of-interest clause.

Employees aren't allowed to have any outside financial or personal interest, direct or indirect, that is "incompatible" with their duties, impairs their judgment on the job or interferes with their performance.

If HART employees are involved financially on the other side of business dealings with HART, they are required to complete HART's disclosure questionnaire and statement.

Relationships that could be considered a potential conflict of interest — including "rental properties" — are supposed to be disclosed, the handbook said.

It's not clear if the disclosure Armijo said he made to HART's attorney constitutes a proper disclosure required by the policy, or if he was even required to do one.

The Florida Commission of Ethics declined to comment on the arrangement.

But it did provide a June 2008 opinion where a Bay County School Board member, who rented a home from an architect whose firm did business with the school district, was not a conflict of interest because the arrangement was at "fair market value" and the transaction wasn't intended to influence the board member.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Suspended HART chief rented condo from lawyer hired by transit agency 04/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 11:31pm]
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