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St. Pete housing board wants CEO Tony Love to pay back agency money he used to pay personal attorney

Under-fire chief executive authorized payment of at least $5,600 in agency funds to his attorney for negotiating his new employment contract.

ST. PETERSBURG — When St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love negotiated a new employment contract last year, he was represented by Marion Hale, his personal attorney.

Hale racked up more than $5,600 in legal expenses on behalf of her client, including conference calls with Housing Authority attorneys.

But Love used agency funds to pay Hale. That means the Housing Authority was footing the bill for attorneys on both sides of the negotiation.

Now the already under-fire CEO will likely have to reimburse the agency, board members said at a meeting Thursday. They voted to have a subcommittee review invoices to determine exactly how much.

The decision was made after board members obtained a legal opinion from Housing Authority attorney Charley Harris that Love’s use of agency funds was “inappropriate.”

At issue was a provision in Love’s contract that allows him to be reimbursed for expenses “reasonably incurred in the performance of his duties.” Harris, an attorney with Trenam Law, said that would not apply since Love’s hiring of a personal attorney was to further his personal interest and not that of the agency.

Love did not speak in his defense at the meeting except to ask that Board Chairwoman Stephanie Owens read an excerpt of an email from Harris that stated Love’s attorney disagreed with the opinion.

Hale, who works for the law firm Johnson Pope, confirmed that in an email sent to the Tampa Bay Times.

“The fees were expenses ‘reasonably incurred in the performance of his duties’ and thus the SPHA has an obligation to reimburse him as provided by his employment agreement,” she said in an email.

Love’s new contract was signed by former board chairwoman Delphinia Davis in January. In included a three-year employment term for Love, a provision that attorneys with Trenam say was never approved by the agency’s governing board. Davis was later removed from office for lax oversight.

This is not the first time that Love’s spending of agency dollars has raised questions.

Love opted to stay at an apartment complex designated for low-income families in 2016 when his initial employment contract required the authority to pay his rent for six months after his relocation from Michigan.

The agency also picked up the almost $3,000 tab to furnish the apartment and for Love’s electric bills, which totaled about $625.

His stay there, which ended up lasting nine months, resulted in the Housing Authority being cited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

And in June, HUD officials ordered a review of the Housing Authority because it failed to get federal approval to use agency funds to sue Mayor Rick Kriseman and the city of St. Petersburg.

Its lawsuit sought to prevent the city from removing Housing Authority board members. It was quickly dismissed by a judge in the city’s favor, leaving the Housing Authority with at least $27,000 in legal fees.

The federal review is still ongoing. It has already led to the Housing Authority board hiring a third party investigator to look into employee reports of a hostile work environment “orchestrated” by Love.

The at-times heated exchanges between Love and the board Thursday provided more evidence of a deteriorating relationship.

After being questioned about a contract with an outside provider, Love accused the board of seeking out “gotcha” questions against him.

“If you all are not pleased with what I’m doing, let’s negotiate,” he said. “Let’s negotiate and you can take this and run this agency the way you want to run it.”

Board Vice Chairwoman Jerri Evans fired back that she had no “gotchas” but had legitimate concerns about his leadership style.

“Every interaction I have had with you, you have been argumentative and contrary to what I feel is professional interaction,” she said. “You have yelled at me, overspoke at me in our one phone conference we have had.”