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Chair of Pinellas’ Housing Finance Authority failed to disclose felony arrest

An inspector general’s report says he also engaged in "unethical behavior'' as a contractor.

CLEARWATER — The inspector general of Pinellas County’s clerk of court has taken the unusual step of recommending that the chairman of a key county board be removed for "unethical behavior'' and failing to disclose a felony arrest.

Following a year-long investigation, the inspector general said Casey Cane, who has served on the Pinellas County Housing Finance Authority board since 2014, falsified an engineer certification while his construction company was doing a remodeling job. Cane also was "not forthcoming'' about his 2006 arrest on a felony scheme to defraud charge in his late teens.

While a judge withheld adjudication in the case, Casey failed to disclose the charge when asked if he had ever been arrested in his initial application to join the board in 2014.

"Members serving on county boards should model the county’s commitment to serving its citizens responsibly,'' the report said. "(Cane) engaged in unethical behavior, which did not align with the county’s mission to consumers.''

The report recommended that the County Commission "initiate the process to vote on (Cane’s) removal'' from the board of an agency that handles millions of dollars in county money.

Although the recommendation was made in July, the seven-member commission has not taken action.

"Obviously, you don’t want someone with that kind of record in an oversight position on that kind of board,'' longtime Commissioner Kenneth Welch said when told of Cane’s felony plea.

Commission chair Karen Seel, however, noted that the county is trying to give ex-offenders a "fresh start'' by no longer requiring applicants for county employment to disclose convictions.

“I think he’s done a good job on the HFA board,'' Seel said of Cane, though she added that she wished he had fully disclosed his criminal record.

The mission of the Housing Finance Authority is to provide affordable housing for Pinellas County residents. It helps fund multi-family rental projects, like the new Palms of Pinellas apartments in Largo, and works with lenders to provide mortgage loans for first-time home buyers. The authority’s board, made up of five members who serve without pay, has the power to make loans and borrow money to buy property.

Cane, 33, calls some of the inspector general’s findings "totally false'' and says his civic service more than makes up for past acts.

“I think my story is one where someone got in trouble but has given back thousands of hours to my community,'' said Cane, who also is an elected Palm Harbor fire commissioner. "I know how one person might look at something but unless you know the details of each individual scenario you can’t pass judgment on it.''

Cane, a Pinellas County native, was 19 in 2006 when he was arrested for grand theft while working as a section manager at a Bealls department store in Oldsmar.

Because of his job, Cane was able to process returns and give discounts. The store’s loss prevention team found that he had fraudulently returned items, putting the money back on his Visa card but keeping the merchandise. He also gave friends and relatives discounts of up 70 percent although employee discounts were only 20 percent.

"Casey stated that he had returned items fraudulently about seven times,'' the arrest report said. "He estimated that he had provided excessive discounts to friends and family approximately 10 times. Casey stated that he had taken clothing for work without paying approximately five times.''

Because of the "ongoing’' conduct, prosecutors upgraded the charge to scheme to defraud. In January 2007, Cane pleaded guilty, was ordered to pay Bealls $785 in restitution and sentenced to 12 months probation during which time he could not leave the county without permission.

In September 2007, Cane was arrested for violating probation after he failed to tell his probation officer of a trip he took the previous month. When asked where he had been, he "did answer untruthfully ... by stating that he was in Orlando for that period when in fact he was on the Royal Caribbean, Sovereign of the Seas on a cruise that sailed out of Port Canaveral,'' the probation officer wrote.

Cane, who had been on his honeymoon, admitted the violation and was placed on community control, meaning he was supposed to stay at home except for essential purposes. After his probation ended, he obtained a general contractor’s license and started his company, Cane Construction.

In 2014, the county sought applicants for a vacancy on the Housing Finance Authority board. In seeking appointment, Cane filled out a form that asked: "Have you been convicted of a financial felony?'' Despite his guilty plea to a financial felony, he could truthfully answer "no'' because he had not been convicted.

To another question — "Have you ever been arrested, charged or indicted for a violation of any federal, state, county or municipal law? — Cane answered "yes.'' Asked to explain, he wrote: "traffic violations.”

He continued to downplay his felony plea. When applying for a Florida real estate license in 2015, he acknowledged the scheme to defraud charge but described what happened as:

" ‘Excessively’ administering my 20% employee discount to family and friends while employed at a local dept. store.’’

In applying for reappointment to the housing board last year, Cane responded this way to the question about arrests: "I was 19 years old and made a poor decision. It was a very intense learning experience. no other arrest, charges etc. on record.'’

Last year, the inspector general’s office received four allegations that Cane had failed to disclose certain matters on his application. The office substantiated one allegation — that he was "not forthcoming with the criminal charge.''

During the investigation, a fifth allegation emerged as part of a civil suit between Cane and a Crystal Beach woman whose home he was remodeling. She said that Cane transposed an engineer’s "title block'' — contact and qualification information — for another project onto a drawing Cane had provided for her job. That created the appearance that an engineer had generated and approved the drawing.

The engineer told the inspector general that Cane had "fraudulently'' lifted his information. Cane claimed he did nothing improper because what he gave the homeowner was not an official blueprint.

Cane’s "actions not only misled a consumer but they also unnecessarily compromised an engineer’s professional certification,'' the inspector general’s report said.

Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which oversees general contractors, dismissed a complaint against Cane after finding "no probable cause'' that he had falsified information. Cane said the Pinellas inspector general knew about the dismissal and should have mentioned it in its report.

"I feel that the Office of Inspector General, not in any way, shape or form, acted in a neutral manner,'' Cane said. He said he did not disclose his felony arrest because "my understanding was that you did not have to disclose that if adjudication is withheld.''

The office performs every investigation "independently and objectively,'' assistant inspector general Ava Sadowski said. The state agency had sealed its records on the case and "therefore we were unable to review the method by which (it) determined there was no probable cause,'' she said.

Cane and his construction company have had other issues. He was hit with a $102,000 judgment in August from a business-loan company, and faces two lawsuits claiming he owes a total of over $220,000 for rents and internet marketing services. He attributes those debts primarily to a "rather questionable employee'' who’s no longer with the company. He said he also has resolved four complaints of shoddy or incomplete work filed with the Better Business Bureau.

Cane, who has four children and is married to Pinellas County School Board member Lisa N. Cane, said he learned from his “simple mistake'' in 2006.

"We all made choices when we were younger, and a lot of these govern how you become as an adult,'' he said. "You take the lessons you learned as a teen and apply them to our life so instead of becoming part of the problem you become part of the solution.''