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Fired housing agency CEO demands almost $1 million in compensation, threatens lawsuit against agency, Rick Kriseman

Ex-CEO Tony Love’s attorney claims the St. Petersburg Housing Authority violated Love’s rights under the Family Medical Leave Act.
St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love (front) and former St. Petersburg Housing Authority Board Chairman Harry Harvey (left). Love is threatening to sue the agency and Mayor Rick Kriseman over his August termination. Harvey is one of three former board members suing Kriseman and the city of St. Petersburg for removing them from office.
St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love (front) and former St. Petersburg Housing Authority Board Chairman Harry Harvey (left). Love is threatening to sue the agency and Mayor Rick Kriseman over his August termination. Harvey is one of three former board members suing Kriseman and the city of St. Petersburg for removing them from office. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 25, 2019
Updated Oct. 25, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Barely a month after Tony Love was fired as CEO of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, a federal review revealed a slew of “serious lapses” in how contracts were handled under his leadership.

Nonetheless, Love is threatening to sue the agency unless he is paid almost $1 million in compensation for being fired after he placed himself on medical leave.

That action violated Love’s rights under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, said J.P. Lechner, Love’s new attorney. In a letter sent to the agency this week, the attorney claimed the board retaliated against Love because he went on leave. Under the protections provided by the federal law, Love is entitled to damages of about $962,000, a figure that includes two years of salary and benefits, Lechner said.

RELATED: CEO Tony Love fired by St. Petersburg Housing Authority

Love also plans to sue St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and all but one housing agency board member for conspiring to fire him, Lechner said. His letter claims that Kriseman intends to scrap the redevelopment of the Jordan Park public housing complex in a “blatant racist attempt” to gentrify the predominantly black South St. Petersburg neighborhood.

The attorney, who works for the law firm Whittel and Melton, has given the agency and the city until Monday to confirm they will “remedy the harm” and compensate Love. He advised that the letter serves as formal notice of likely litigation.

Board members acknowledged the legal threat at a meeting Thursday but did not discuss it. Housing agency legal counsel Charley Harris, who was not present, did not return an email requesting comment.

An attorney for Tony Love, the ex-CEO of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, says St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman (above) intends to scrap the redevelopment of the Jordan Park public housing complex in a “blatant racist attempt” to gentrify the predominantly black South St. Petersburg neighborhood. Love is threatening to sue Kriseman over his dismissal as CEO.
An attorney for Tony Love, the ex-CEO of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, says St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman (above) intends to scrap the redevelopment of the Jordan Park public housing complex in a “blatant racist attempt” to gentrify the predominantly black South St. Petersburg neighborhood. Love is threatening to sue Kriseman over his dismissal as CEO. [ CITY OF ST PETERSBURG | CITY OF ST PETERSBURG ]

St. Petersburg Assistant City Attorney Joseph Patner declined to say if the city would take any action before Lechner’s deadline but dismissed the claim that Kriseman conspired with board members.

“Mayor Kriseman had nothing to do with the removal of Tony Love. That was a decision of the board,” Patner said.

RELATED: St. Pete housing agency overpaid on contracts, violated federal regulations, review finds

Love was fired Aug. 30 after board members said he placed himself on medical leave without notifying his boss, board Chairwoman Stephanie Owens. They were distressed that he would go on leave as Hurricane Dorian was approaching and the agency was making preparations to help its residents through the storm.

But that was only one of more than a half-dozen missteps that led board members to repeatedly express their frustration with their top executive.

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Love was the subject of a third-party investigation into claims he created a hostile work environment. He used at least $5,600 in agency funds to pay his personal attorney to negotiate a new contract on his behalf. His decision to use $27,000 of agency funds on a failed lawsuit against St. Petersburg and Kriseman led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to launch a review of the agency’s spending.

Love’s contract allows the board to fire him for convenience, as opposed to terminating him for cause. In his letter, Lechner claims that provision would be illegal under the federal medical leave act.

If Love does follow through on his threat, it will be the third time the city has been forced to defend its decision to remove three housing agency board members from office.

Kriseman this year recommended City Council remove the three and also declined to reappoint two other board members after a series of Times reports highlighted missteps by the agency, including Love’s decision to live rent-free for nine months in an apartment designated for low-income families.

RELATED: St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO lived rent-free in low-income housing — while earning $140,000 salary

The five board members were staunch backers of Love. Other supporters, including St. Petersburg NAACP Chapter President Maria Scruggs, saw the move as proof that Kriseman’s goal was to get Love fired.

State law gives the city the authority to appoint and remove board members but the agency is autonomous, with board members responsible for oversight.

A judge quickly dismissed one previous lawsuit filed by the housing agency against Kriseman. Another filed against the city by the three board members who were removed is ongoing.

“We will once again defend the Mayor against any such allegations as we have successfully done in the past,” Patner said.

Leachner’s letter also demands that the housing agency pay Love any unused vacation pay.

Agency records obtained through a public records request show that a check for roughly $4,462 was sent by courier to Love’s attorney on Oct. 16. The amount included $15,700 for 208 unused vacation hours but the agency deducted tax and $5,689 to reimburse the agency for Love’s payments to his personal attorney.

Board members on Thursday also discussed a delay in closing on the financing agreement for the redevelopment of Jordan Park. The project is still slated to go ahead but construction will be delayed by more than four months due to a mix-up between HUD and a consultant, said Tampa Housing Authority Chief Operating Officer Leroy Moore.

The Tampa housing agency is assisting its St. Petersburg counterpart while it searches for a new CEO.