ST. PETERSBURG –– After Mayor Rick Kriseman transferred his longtime personal secretary to the Fire Department, his chief of staff ordered the employee to not say anything negative that could hurt the mayor, records show.
In September, Kriseman's closest aides told the Tampa Bay Times that Lisa Brekke, 32, was moved to fire headquarters as a training specialist to enhance her "professional growth" in city government. At the time, Kriseman chief of staff Kevin King and spokesman Ben Kirby stressed that nothing else triggered the transfer.
But records the Times recently obtained show tension between King and Brekke led her to tell top fire, human resources and legal officials that King intimidated her and left her in tears when a reporter asked the mayor's office about the transfer.
This week, Brekke disputed that she was moved to grow her career.
"This was not a friendly job transfer," said Brekke, who spent years working for Kriseman at a law firm and was one of his first hires at City Hall. Her $48,456 salary remained the same.
Brekke declined to elaborate on what caused the transfer but pointed to the email she wrote in September after King and Kirby held a conference call with her.
The men told her what she needed to tell the Times and reminded her that negative news impacts Kriseman, according to the email. The men pressed Brekke for answers on what she said publicly about the transfer and how the Times learned about the move.
"You know you can't say anything about the city that would cause a negative news article," Brekke said King told her.
Kirby then read a statement he would send to the Times, Brekke wrote, adding he wanted her to agree that "it was a personal decision between the mayor and I." (Unknown to Brekke, Kirby had already sent the statement to the newspaper.)
King also wanted to know if any Fire Department employees were mad about Brekke's transfer. She replied that some were but not any longer.
After the call ended, Brekke called assistant city attorney Joseph Patner for advice on handling King and Kirby. He urged her to alert other officials since she "may have certain legal rights and claims," records show.
The next morning, Brekke emailed fire and human resource officials to say she didn't want the "prior events" to threaten her career with the city.
"The conversation that took place between Mr. King and I left me feeling very uncomfortable and intimidated," Brekke wrote about the call. "I have moved on … and would like to leave the rest behind me."
King and Kirby's conference call came weeks after Kriseman retracted a policy that would have terminated employees if they spoke to the media without permission from his office.
This week, Kriseman stressed that his office offered no advancement options for Brekke. He confirmed "tension" existed between her and King when they worked together.
But Kriseman said he was surprised Brekke disputed the reason for the transfer.
"That's news to me." Kriseman said, adding: "The job was not a good fit for her in the long term."
When asked if he supports top aides warning employees about negative comments, Kriseman said: "I wasn't a party to that conversation. I don't know, in fact, if that has happened. It's Lisa saying what was said."
King, 38, said he cannot understand why Brekke wrote the email.
"I think she just wanted to move," he said. "Unequivocally … I did not harass her."
Meanwhile, a March memo in Brekke's personnel file details how a human resources official raised concerns about moving her and promoting another employee to a training coordinator without first posting the two fire positions for others to apply.
Chris Guella, director of human resources, asked staffers to "make an exception" for the mayor, the memo said.
"This is what the mayor wants so he will handle any complaints," the memo said.
Council member Amy Foster said she wondered about Brekke's transfer and is troubled by concerns that Brekke wrote in the email to fire and human resource officials.
"Of course I am concerned any time that here is any allegation of any employee working in a hostile environment," Foster said.
King, who earns nearly $121,000 annually, worked with Kriseman during his 12 years as a member of the City Council and the Florida House.
Since becoming chief of staff, King has been, at times, a lightning rod in City Hall. He has clashed with council members who make negative comments about Kriseman's decisions. He even offended Oldsmar leaders when they made a pitch for a new professional baseball stadium. King said: "To me, Oldsmar's like Georgia."
He has also been dogged about his 2001 arrest stemming from accusations he propositioned a teenage girl for sex.
The case has been expunged from court files and is not in public records. Based on the Times' account of his arrest then, King was 22 and working as a substitute teacher for the Pinellas County School District.
St. Petersburg police accused him of trying to get two female students, ages 14 and 15, to skip school and drink beer with him, and asking one to perform a sex act on him. Neither girl actually went with King.
He was charged with three felonies, including two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The school district fired him a day later. King has said on multiple occasions that he was not convicted of any crimes.
Contact Mark Puente at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente