ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Petersburg Housing Authority is hiring an outside investigator to look into employee reports of a hostile work environment "orchestrated" by agency CEO Tony Love.
The complaints from a majority of staffers at every level emerged during a review of the troubled agency conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Even though the review is ongoing, HUD officials felt it necessary to warn the Housing Authority's governing board that the treatment of staffers is putting the agency at significant legal risk.
"A topic that was consistent from the majority of the staff at every level was 'hostile work environment,' " Elis Wilson-Henri, HUD public housing regional director for the southeast, wrote in an email to Housing Authority board members.
He has ordered the board to respond with a proposed plan to investigate and deal with the allegations.
Board Chairwoman Stephanie Owens said the housing authority has contracted with law firm Saxon Gilmore to hire an outside investigator. Its senior partner, Ricardo Gilmore, already serves as special counsel to several housing authorities, including Tampa's.
"We're very concerned," Owens said. "We take those types of allegations very seriously and recognize the importance of taking immediate action and that's what we've done."
The investigation could be another setback for Love, who has faced criticism after a series of missteps including charging a board member for public records and a Tampa Bay Times investigation that revealed he lived rent-free for nine months in an apartment designated for low-income families.
It also may detract from his recent success in winning coveted tax credits from the state to help refinance the redevelopment of Jordan Park. The credits were awarded last week by the Florida Housing Finance Corp. They can be sold to companies to raise funds for the public housing project's redevelopment.
Housing Authority spokesman Michelle Ligon said neither Love nor the agency would comment until the HUD review is complete.
Complaints about Love's management style, particularly of female employees, has emerged as a problem before.
In 2016, at least two senior staff complained about his treatment of women in anonymous questionnaires they were asked to fill out as part of Love's first evaluation as CEO.
That prompted board members to insist that Love work with Massachusetts housing consultant Leo Dauwer on his people skills, for which Dauwer's firm was paid $3,600.
In a five-hour meeting with the consultant, Love acknowledged he "screamed'' at staffers and on one occasion made them do non-agency work for him.
But complaints have continued this year. In February, one was filed with human resources by Robin Adams, the authority's asset management officer. She reported needing counseling to deal with the "extreme stress" and anxiety caused by Love, who is paid $157,000 annually to run the agency.
"Mr. Love has consistently verbally abused, harassed and degraded me and other senior staff members, especially female staff members, through one-way interrogations, baseless chastising, insults and bullying," she wrote. Some six months after the complaint was filed, it was still pending.
HUD decided to conduct a review of the Housing Authority after it used agency funds to sue Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City of St. Petersburg when council members voted to remove three board members for lax oversight. The board members removed from office were staunch allies of Love.
The agency's lawsuit argued that charges of misconduct and neglect of duty cited to justify removal were a "pretext" so Kriseman can appoint commissioners who will fire Love.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit, leaving the Housing Authority with at least $27,000 in legal fees.
Wilson-Henri, the HUD official, also told board members in his email that its review has raised some concerns about the Housing Authority's spending. It did not provide any examples.
Still, board members voted at a special meeting earlier this week to lower the threshold for agency spending without prior board approval from $150,000 to $20,000.
"This gives the board closer and more tight checks and balances," Owens said.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.