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Three tax collector's clerks are suspended

Three women with pending discrimination complaints against the county tax collector's office have been suspended from their jobs at the south St. Petersburg automobile tag and title office.

The employees, who make up about one-third of the staff at the office, were suspended with pay because of suspicions of mishandling of funds, falsification of documents and "inappropriate behavior," said assistant county attorney Bill Falkner.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is investigating the allegations.

Lynn Williams, a senior tag and title clerk who was suspended June 5, a week after a customer accused her of shorting her $60, has been collecting her $400-a-week salary. Another senior clerk, Natasha Young, was suspended Friday. Falkner said a review of office records resulting from Williams' case indicated that Young might have falsified documents.

Williams, who has worked in the tax office for nearly 10 years, denies wrongdoing.

"I know for a fact that I have done nothing wrong," she said. "I thought it was a setup when it happened, and I still do."

Young could not be reached for comment.

Both women filed complaints about four years ago with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging racial discrimination by supervisors in the tax collector's office. Williams said their claims were scheduled to be mediated at the end of this month.

A third clerk, Toni LoPinto, was suspended Friday after a customer accused her of "inappropriate conduct by a member of the tax collector's office," Falkner said. He declined to specify the nature of the complaint.

LoPinto filed a complaint with the EEOC about two years ago, alleging gender discrimination. She could not be reached for comment.

Tax Collector Fred Petty's office has been plagued with complaints of discrimination. The suspended employees are among at least 10 who have filed EEOC complaints since 1992. Petty said the EEOC complaints had no bearing on the suspensions.

"It had to be done," he said.

The allegations involve a $100 registration fee that is waived when a car is transferred between immediate family members or as a gift. When such an exemption is given, the clerk marks the tag with an "L" notation.

A customer said that Williams charged her $140.85 _ in cash _ to register her car, but she later discovered that Williams had given her a receipt for $80.85. When she complained, she was told by another tax office employee that she should have paid $180.85, and that Williams had wrongly given her the $100 family member exemption.

The customer paid the extra $100 but wanted back $60 _ the difference between what she says she gave Williams and what the receipt indicates she paid.

A review of tax collector's office records by the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick shows that in the first six months of 1996, Williams processed 169 L transactions, almost 24 percent of the total number of L transactions processed in the office during that period.

About 21 percent of the L transactions were processed by senior clerk Vicki Jones. Jones, whose EEOC claim was settled recently, has not been suspended.

Young had the third-highest percentage with 11.25 percent, which was about average.

Williams said that customers often come back to the office claiming they have been shortchanged, but she is the first to be suspended for it.

"They'll do anything to humiliate me," she said. "They've been abusing us for a long time."

But Georgia Meredith, the director of current taxes, personnel and operational services, defended the suspension.

"We're not going to put blinders on when something is brought to our attention," Meredith said. "There has to be accountability."

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