TAMPA — Disturbed by what he called "legal human trafficking," Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said Monday he will ask for a federal investigation of New Beginnings of Tampa, a homeless charity that sends its impoverished residents to work unpaid at Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rays games.
Beckner's announcement came a day after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found New Beginnings — one of Tampa's largest homeless charities — has for years worked residents in exchange for food and shelter in an array of industries to raise money for the program. New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison calls it "work therapy," and touts both its therapeutic benefits and its importance as a fundraiser.
Beckner said he will contact U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, to try to prompt an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor into whether New Beginnings is violating federal labor law. New Beginnings gets donations from concessions companies Aramark and Centerplate in exchange for the homeless work crews it sends to games. Atchison has also worked his homeless residents without pay in construction, telemarketing, moving and painting, among other jobs, to help cover their $150 weekly program costs at New Beginnings.
"We have a responsibility to address allegations to make sure individuals aren't being exploited," Beckner said.
Castor did not return a call for comment. Beckner plans to send the Times article, along with information that county staff has compiled about New Beginnings, to Castor's office later this week.
In a phone interview Monday, Atchison invited the investigation.
"Bring it on, man," said Atchison, 61, who is also pastor of New Life Pentecostal Church in North Tampa. He declined further comment and hung up.
Meanwhile, it appears questionable aspects of Atchison's charity are starting to cost New Beginnings public money.
Hillsborough County officials released documents Monday detailing why the county has suspended a federal grant to New Beginnings and rejected the charity's bid to run Hillsborough's new homeless shelter. Last month, county staff asked Atchison — who was vying for both the multimillion-dollar shelter contract and a $64,000 federal grant that passes through the county — to turn over documentation explaining how New Beginnings handles its formerly homeless residents' income.
Atchison has all the mail that is addressed to New Beginnings residents — including their Social Security checks — delivered to his office, and he deposits the checks into New Beginnings accounts. Employees and former residents have complained to law enforcement and the Times that Atchison keeps more than he's owed for program fees, claims Atchison denies. Law enforcement has never charged Atchison with a crime connected to these accusations.
In a Nov. 19 letter to Atchison, Hillsborough Affordable Housing Services director Paula Harvey explained that county staff had suspended a federal grant because of "inadequate … internal controls" at New Beginnings over handling of residents' money.
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New Beginnings' bid to run a county homeless shelter was rejected because Hillsborough staff found the charity not financially capable of the job. County business staff reviewed financial statements that New Beginnings submitted and found the organization had too much debt and a "poor cash position," county documents state.
This week, Hillsborough commissioners will vote on whether to award the shelter bid — $3.2 million over two years — to DACCO, an agency that treats people with substance abuse problems and mental illness.
Also Monday, the Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Lightning released statements about the revelation that homeless men had worked at their games in exchange for food and shelter, an arrangement homeless advocates have called exploitative and compared to indentured servitude.
"We have spoken with Centerplate and voiced our concerns," the Rays statement said. "They have advised us that they are conducting an internal review of this organization and should reach a decision soon. We are confident they will handle this matter appropriately."
Centerplate told the Times last week its contracts with charities explicitly prohibit sending volunteers dependent on the charities for shelter or food.
Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett confirmed New Beginnings sent volunteers to work about 100 events at Amalie Arena from 2011 through April 2013.
"We ended our relationship with New Beginnings at the end of the 2012-13 hockey season because of reliability and consistency concerns," Wickett wrote.
The Lightning honored Atchison in February 2013 as a "Community Hero," and gave New Beginnings a $50,000 donation. Atchison said he spent the money on a kitchen renovation and expansion at New Beginnings.
The Buccaneers and Aramark concessions company, meanwhile, again declined to comment Monday about the use of unpaid homeless labor at Raymond James Stadium. The NFL also declined to comment.
Contact Will Hobson at whobson@ tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.