ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch lobbied other public officials this summer to hire a nonprofit to take over a taxpayer-funded literacy program for disadvantaged children in southern St. Petersburg.
His appeals came after that same group promised to hire his wife, Donna, who had been fired from another nonprofit that ran the same faith-based reading program, according to records and interviews.
St. Petersburg-based R’Club Child Care sought to take over the program Aug. 30. That day, Welch’s official calendar shows he began contacting a majority of public officials and gubernatorial appointees who serve on the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County. The agency awards tax dollars to run the $600,000 annual program.
Seven of 11 board members interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times said Welch urged them to move the program to R’Club Child Care, which works to improve children’s lives.
"He said his wife was being unfairly targeted," Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said about the commissioner’s call. "It wasn’t a very long conversation. I told him I wanted to see how it played out."
Donna Welch led the reading program out of the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center for 11 years but was fired in June after she and two other leaders received $16,000 in unauthorized vacation pay.
As controversy engulfed the program, the Juvenile Welfare Board asked the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg to take over the program. Two months later, the R’Club made a pitch for it. That’s when Welch’s private meetings started.
Board member and Lealman Fire District Division Chief James Millican said Welch didn’t specifically discuss his wife but stressed he wanted the program moved to R’Club Child Care.
"He wanted it kept on the south side of St. Petersburg," Millican said. "He wanted to know what the (board) was going to do with the program. I didn’t have an answer on that."
James Sewell, another board member and former assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said Welch raised concerns about his wife’s termination.
"He was calling me as a concerned husband," Sewell said. "He’s very much supportive of the program. I took it as it was."
Welch said he lobbied board members to keep the reading program in churches and to defend his wife, not to help her get a job.
"I can’t take layers off of who I am," Welch said. "My wife has dedicated her life to helping kids. None of this was done as the chair of the County Commission. I was looking for justice for my wife."
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The Juvenile Welfare Board funnels property tax dollars to many children’s programs in the county. Sanderlin received $2.6 million over the past five years for the reading program.
Turmoil began months ago when the Juvenile Welfare Board questioned a higher payroll at Sanderlin.
Welch was suspended for two weeks but exonerated in an investigation, which found the former executive director authorized the policy change for vacation payouts. That was what Juvenile Welfare Board executive director Marcie Biddleman told the Times in June.
In July, Ken Welch contacted Juvenile Welfare Board members to discuss the secrecy around his wife’s firing. He also raised the issue with board during a public meeting that month. At the time, his wife had been offered a contract to work for the YMCA.
When the YMCA took over the reading program, it angered pastors. Churches receive rent money to house classes for the program. Pastors asked R’Club to intervene.
A two-page letter from R’Club executive director Arthur O’Hara said pastors were unhappy with the YMCA. O’Hara pledged to work closely with pastors if the nonprofit took over the program.
The letter also stated: "We will reinstate Donna Welch as the Program Director."
In September, the YMCA severed ties with Donna Welch, records show, citing the uncertainty of the program for the next fiscal year. Last month, the Juvenile Welfare Board advertised an "invitation to negotiate" for groups who want to develop a plan to operate the program. The application period is ongoing. The Juvenile Welfare Board is expected to make a decision on Thursday.
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On Sept. 4, Ken Welch called Bill Ulbricht, the board chair at the YMCA, according to the commissioner’s calendar.
Ulbricht said Welch stressed that the pastors didn’t want the program moved to the YMCA. Ulbricht didn’t know whether Welch was exerting influence for pastors or his wife.
"I don’t know what he expected me to do," Ulbricht said. "He said, ‘The pastors wanted it to go to the R’Club.’ I heard what he said. We have no desire to get into the middle of that."
In an interview with the Times, Welch said he called Ulbricht to tell him the YMCA had "a problem in the community. The feeling was that it was being taken away from the faith-based sites, and it was now a YMCA program. I did not think it was good fit. That is why there was pushback from the pastors."
For years, Welch said, he never got involved with the reading program because it would appear he was exerting influence. That changed this summer, he said.
Welch said he lobbied board members because his wife, who earned $48,000 last year, was railroaded by the Sanderlin Center and fired without a reason. He called Sanderlin trustees "toxic" for operating in secrecy.
"I made the determination to reach out to the JWB to let them know my wife was falsely accused and was not getting any due process," he said. "I was hands off until I had to be hands on."
Two weeks ago, Juvenile Welfare Board employees reviewed Donna Welch’s dismissal letter, which said she was "terminated for cause." It gave no further details, records show.
Kurt Lenz, a Sanderlin trustee and spokesman, declined to comment on the firing. But he said Welch and the other leaders have not returned the unauthorized vacation payouts.
"None of it has been returned despite repeated requests by the Sanderlin Center," Lenz said.
Shirin Vesely, Donna Welch’s attorney, said there have not been "repeated" requests for the money.
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Commissioner Welch offered a reason for the turmoil: Politics and the 2021 St. Petersburg mayoral election.
One of the newest Sanderlin trustees is Deveron Gibbons, a former mayoral candidate and political rival of Welch.
In the city’s divisive 2017 mayoral contest, Gibbons backed Republican candidate and former Mayor Rick Baker. Welch supported Democratic incumbent Rick Kriseman, who won a second term.
In March, Welch said he was put on the spot during a talk he gave at Café con Tampa, a weekly current event discussion group, and declared he would run for mayor in 2021.
Now, he said he believes Gibbons is pulling strings to extract "revenge" for the 2017 campaign and "damage" his future campaign.
"I’m still running," Welch added. "This will not stop me."
Welch said he could not allow politics to harm his wife’s reputation.
"I was not going to abandon her," Welch said. "She doesn’t forfeit her rights to due process because she’s married to me. That’s all I was doing. I wasn’t going to let her get trampled by these political folks who don’t care about the program."
Gibbons dismissed Welch’s accusations.
"I’m very sorry Commissioner Welch feels that way," Gibbons said. "I’m praying for him and his family."
Welch said he didn’t use political influence to help his wife.
"I’d do it again," he said. "She’s done nothing wrong."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.