Editorial: Conflicts of interest, spending issues undermined Pinellas reading program

Published Jan. 17, 2019

Supported by local property taxes, the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County invests in early learning programs, mentoring and mental health services for children. But good intentions are no defense for the troubling lack of accountability and controls on public money spent on a reading program run by the wife of a Pinellas County commissioner. Taxpayers deserve a full accounting of how their money is spent, clear measures of results and candid explanations when expectations are not met.

Donna Welch, the wife of Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, spent $2.6 million in the past five years as the director of a publicly funded reading program aimed at helping poor children in south St. Petersburg. Yet there was little documentation or oversight in how she spent that money, and the average cost per student a year was $7,296. That alone should have been a red flag, but there were other warning signs of trouble.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Mark Puente reported, Donna Welch spent tens of thousands of dollars on expenses that have little to do with reading. The bills included thousands for food, photos, shirts and a disc jockey for year-end parties. The program spent $16,000 to shuttle kids to field trips in the 2017-18 fiscal year and only $62 on books. Her annual pay rose over several years from $33,722, to $49,429.

Who was the watchdog for taxpayers? Not the Juvenile Welfare Board, which reimbursed expenses or sent payments to vendors. Its executive director says the oversight belonged to the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center, which was the home base for Welch's program. But Sanderlin's former executive director says she wasn't responsible, either. And Welch says she ran the program with integrity and that the Juvenile Welfare Board and the Sanderlin Center approved all purchases. They can't all be right.

It's not just what Donna Welch spent public money on that is concerning. It is also whom she paid and how she paid. Puente reported Welch steered $90,000 for technology services to a firm owned by a friend's spouse. She also spent thousands for rent and supplies at her family's church. The lack of controls on spending lead to questions of conflicts of interest regardless of Welch's intentions.

Those aren't the only questions in this messy intersection of worthy causes, public money and personal connections. The Sanderlin board fired Donna Welch "for cause" in June but won't say why. The Juvenile Welfare Board moved the reading program to the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg, which hired Donna Welch to keep running it. But that relationship also apparently soured, and Ken Welch called or met with at least seven Juvenile Welfare board members and urged them to move the reading program to another nonprofit that pledged to hire his wife. That is an obvious conflict of interest for a county commissioner who has broad influence on public spending and policy. Yet Ken Welch defends his actions and says he only defended his wife from what he views as unfair treatment. His cryptic Facebook post following the news account of his wife's spending with the reading program: #TruthIsComing.

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Truth would be good. The Sanderlin Center should disclose why Donna Welch was terminated. The Juvenile Welfare Board, or perhaps Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, should investigate how every nickel of the $2.6 million was spent while she ran the reading program. And the Juvenile Welfare Board, which is developing a new reading program, should follow through on its efforts to better monitor spending.

The Juvenile Welfare Board is a tremendous resource for Pinellas County, and reading programs for poor children are important. But public support for such worthy efforts is undermined when there is a lack of oversight and a county commissioner intervenes on behalf of his wife.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial reported that former director Donna Welch spent $16,000 to shuttle children to field trips in the 2017-18 fiscal year. Welch helped plan the field trips, but the transportation costs were authorized by other program officials. In addition, the editorial reported on per-student spending that was discussed in a public board meeting. That information was based on an apples to oranges comparison of academic year attendance and full-year spending. Calculating based on average daily attendance for the program over the 12-month 2017-18 fiscal year that ran from October through September yields a $7,296 per-student spending figure.

Clarification: As head of a taxpayer-funded reading program to help poor children in south Pinellas County, Donna Welch spent $62 on books in the 2017-18 fiscal year. A Dec. 9 story and a Dec. 13 editorial were unclear on the exact year.