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Path of donation raises questions

After donating money intended for a Tampa Police Department literacy program, members of the Junior League were surprised to have that donation returned two months later.

"We did not know why" the money was not being used, said Junior League president Mindy Murphy. With the returned check came a note from Deputy Police Chief Jane Siling, saying that the department was unable to meet the Junior League's requirement that the check be used within 90 days.

By that point, however, what had begun as a act of philanthropy for a first-grade reading program had already escalated into a hornet's nest of accusations and power plays within the Police Department.

At the center of the controversy is Siling, a 26-year veteran with a spotless record who has never shied away from speculation that she desires to be the next chief of police.

Now Siling, who makes $99,000 a year, is being questioned by an attorney for the Police Athletic League about how the $2,500 donation came to be deposited for a time in her personal bank account. An accountant is now auditing PAL's books to find out whether there are any problems, said Tampa Police Sgt. Jim Diamond, who is president of PAL. Meanwhile, Police Chief Bennie Holder is standing by his deputy chief.

Here's how it happened.

Earlier this year, Siling heard about a reading effort called the Black Stallion Literacy Program. The program, which had nothing to do with PAL, was to be administered by the mounted unit of the Police Department. The idea: An officer on horseback would visit first-graders at Sulphur Springs Elementary, and the officer would pass out books about a pony and ask the children to be ready to read their favorite part on the next visit. The aim was to make reading fun.

Siling liked the idea and applied for a donation from the Junior League. The League cut a check dated April 27.

Siling said it was easier to channel the money through PAL, a non-profit police organization aimed at helping local children, than to deal with the red tape of going through the city. PAL could then transfer the funds to her to buy the books, she said.

There was nothing illegal about it, she said.

The check made out to Siling from PAL is dated May 3. But Siling said she got busy, and the check sat on her desk until Friday, June 22, when she deposited it into her personal bank account.

The next day, Siling said, she was tipped off at home that Diamond, the PAL president, and others within the department had made complaints that she had improperly taken the money. Diamond, however, had co-signed the check made out to Siling.

The following Monday, June 25, she withdrew the money from her bank in the form of a cashier's check and returned it to the Junior League.

Diamond said he did not feel comfortable approaching Siling about the situation, so he went through his chain of command, which led to a meeting with Holder.

"The Chief concurred it was an administrative thing" rather than a criminal matter, and asked Diamond to conduct an internal inquiry and report back with his findings, Diamond said.

"But I never said Siling did anything improper with the money," Diamond said.

Not so, says the deputy chief, who maintains she fully intended to buy the books for the children until she realized she would not get it done within the 90 days required by the donor.

"Jim Diamond went into a staff meeting and made allegations of fraud and theft," Siling said, calling the accusations "a bold-faced lie."

The experience, she says, has "mortally wounded" her.

"I thought of leaving" the department, Siling said. "But then it would look like I did something wrong."

The entire situation, Siling said, is an attempt to discredit her.

"Other people have had checks made to them personally so they could buy things for the department," she said. She thinks she is being singled out because of posturing on the part of another deputy chief, John Bushell, who oversees PAL.

Bushell is also rumored to be a contender for chief when Holder leaves in two years.

He could not be reached for comment.

Diamond said the situation had everything to do with a desire to have PAL's accounting in order and nothing to do with politics. He called Siling's concerns "paranoid."

An accountant is now going over PAL's books, he said, and it appears Siling had made four or five similar transactions in the past.

"We're a not-for-profit, and we need to be above reproach," he said.

Murphy of the Junior League said while they would give to PAL again, she was not comfortable with any of the money going to an individual, no matter how sterling their reputation.

"I would assume this woman was doing what she said, but that was not the best way to handle it," she said.

Holder said he will not get involved in the matter unless PAL and Siling "could not work it out."

Meanwhile, Holder said, he firmly believes Siling has done nothing wrong.

"The rumor mill has accused Jane of committing a crime," he said, but there was no evidence.

Besides, he said, "I know Jane Siling. She is not the type to do anything illegal. She is as honest as the day is long."

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or herdysptimes.com.

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