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Emails reveal St. Petersburg approached state official about job while state investigated city's sewage woes

ST. PETERSBURG — In the aftermath of the city's summer sewage crisis, public works administrator Claude Tankersley was looking for new talent to fill gaps in St. Petersburg's sewer department. Someone recommended a state environmental official, Michele Duggan.

Tankersley reached out to her. They met in his office in City Hall on Oct. 14.

Then on Friday, Duggan got an email from the city: "Congratulations!"

City emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times reveal problems with this chain of events:

First, a St. Petersburg administrator contacted a state official directly involved in investigating the city's sewer system to talk about a job in the city's sewer department — a job posted three weeks after they met.

Second, this latest version of events contradicts what St. Petersburg officials told the Times on Monday about how Duggan became a top job candidate for the city.

Duggan is one of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials looking into the 200 million gallons of sewage the city has released since last year. She was listed as the contact for the DEP inquiry, which started in September and ended in mid November. But during that investigation, Duggan spoke to Tankersley in October, applied on Nov. 7 and was interviewed by the city on Nov. 30.

When the Times asked St. Petersburg officials about Duggan's job application on Monday, they said the city did not recruit her. But on Wednesday, city officials said they did not know about Tankersley's Oct. 14 meeting. However, they still insisted it was a casual conversation with Duggan, not an attempt to recruit her.

Earlier this week, the city said she applied online and was a good choice, but no job offer was made. But days before, the city sent Duggan an email telling her she was the "selected candidate."

Mayor Rick Kriseman's spokesman, Ben Kirby, said they don't see any issues with this latest version of events.

"I just don't know what that changes," Kirby said when told that Tankersley sought out Duggan during the state investigation.

University of Miami law professor Anthony Alfieri, the founder and director of the school's Center for Ethics and Public Service, doesn't buy that.

He called it "side-switching" and said it could damage the public's trust in City Hall and the DEP. It creates the risk that a state employee could give the city confidential information about the state investigation.

"That might be adverse to a full and fair state investigation," Alfieri said, "and unfairly advantage the city in obtaining a result that would be detrimental to the public's right to clean water in Tampa and Boca Ciega bays."

The DEP did not know Duggan had applied for a city job until the Times contacted the agency on Monday. The DEP has declined to respond to questions about Duggan's actions or whether her recruitment could compromise the state investigation, which was completed and is now under review.

The agency on Wednesday once again stressed that Southwest District director Mary Yeargan was the lead investigator looking into St. Petersburg's problems and that Duggan only assisted that investigation.

"We would reiterate that Michele was not the lead investigator," DEP spokeswoman Shannon Herbon said.

The newly hired spokesman for St. Petersburg's public works department, Bill Logan, said Tankersley checked with the city attorney's office and was told he wouldn't violate city regulations by meeting with Duggan. City lawyers told Tankersley that the meeting was fine as long as they didn't discuss the pending consent order, Logan said, which they did not. The city attorney's office confirmed it gave that advice.

Duggan, who makes $61,999 annually, still works for the state. Duggan and Tankersley did not respond to requests for comment.

But according to Logan, Tankersley said someone — he would not say who — recommended Duggan as a promising sewer expert who could fill vacancies in the sewer department. So Tankersley invited her to an Oct. 14 meeting. Tankersley told Duggan to keep a close eye on the city's website for an upcoming job.

In a followup email Oct. 16, Duggan thanked Tankersley and pitched herself as a good fit.

"I completed my 'homework' and have a vision of my ideal position," she wrote. "I look forward to discussing this with you."

The job of environmental compliance manager was posted Nov. 4. It was open because of the sewage mess: The former occupant, John Palenchar, was promoted to interim director of the Waster Resources Department to replace the former director, who was suspended by the mayor.

Tankersley didn't interview Duggan. Instead it was Palenchar who took part in a three-person interview panel that queried Duggan on Nov. 30. Two days later, Palenchar emailed Duggan.

"Congratulations!" he wrote. "You presented very well and the interview board was very impressed by your experience, and organizational and management skills."

However, Kirby said that Duggan's hiring was not official as of Wednesday.

The state plans to fine St. Petersburg $820,000 and outlined a plan for the city to fix its sewer system by 2018. But the DEP is not the only agency investigating the city's waste woes.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has law enforcement powers, is conducting a criminal investigation. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has also questioned at least one city worker.

Logan, who has worked for Tankersley since the end of November, said his boss "doesn't have a duplicitous bone in his body."

As Logan put it: "There is no there there."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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