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  1. Pinellas

Spending gets flagged for reading program run by wife of Pinellas County commissioner

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Board chair Brian Aungst, Jr., left, and Dr. Marcie A. Biddleman, right, chief executive officer for the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County. They concede that spending for a reading program run by Donna Welch had lax oversight.
Published Jan. 17

ST. PETERSBURG – The director of a taxpayer-funded reading program to help poor children in south Pinellas County spent $2.6 million in the past five years with scant documentation, minimal oversight and no tracking mechanism, the Tampa Bay Times has found.

Donna Welch, wife of Democratic Pinellas County Commission Chair Ken Welch, spent thousands of dollars on food, photos, shirts and a disc jockey for year-end parties for the Faith-Based Literacy & Technology Program. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, the program spent $16,000 to shuttle kids to field trips, but only $62 on books.

Her spending mingled the personal with the public. One example: $90,000 that Welch directed for computer repair to a firm owned by a friend's spouse. Welch also spent thousands for rent and supplies at her family's church.

"It was like a fiefdom," said Brian Aungst Jr., a Clearwater lawyer and chairman of the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, which uses tax dollars to pay for the program. "People felt like it was their money. There is a smell here."

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Each year, Aungst's board gives millions from property tax dollars to programs to improve the lives of children and families. In 2018, it spent $57 million for about 90 programs.

The mission for one of those programs, the Faith-Based Literacy & Technology Program, is to improve literacy and computing skills for poor children.

Yet, the Juvenile Welfare Board announced last month that it doesn't know whether the program is boosting reading skills because it has no way to measure results.

The average cost for those participating in the Faith-Based Literacy & Technology Program was $7,296 per student for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Yet attendance in the program has dropped. In the last two years, average daily attendance dipped by 11 students. Meanwhile, as Welch led the program out of the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center, her annual pay rose from $33,722 to $49,429, records show.

Shirin Vesely, an attorney at Trenam Law, would not let Welch talk during an interview with a reporter, saying Welch would respond only to written questions.

In a statement, Welch stressed she ran the program with integrity and passion. She said Sanderlin and the Juvenile Welfare Board approved all purchases.

"The community should know that the program is successfully delivering much needed academic mentoring and enrichment programs to neighborhoods most-heavily impacted by poverty," the statement said.

This June, the reading program came under fire after the Juvenile Welfare Board discovered that Welch and Sanderlin's executive director and operations chief collected a total of $16,000 in improper payouts of unused vacation hours.

Two other leaders resigned, but Sanderlin trustees cleared Welch in an internal investigation. The trustees later terminated Welch "for cause" but would not cite a reason.

Amid the turmoil, the Juvenile Welfare Board moved the program to the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. During that time, Welch requested $8,500 in deposits for a year-end party. The YMCA rejected the request.The YMCA did the "right thing" to stop the party, Jaruszewski said. Welch spent at least $15,000 for similar parties, records show. The YMCA severed ties with Welch in September, citing the uncertainty of the program.

A review of more than 700 pages of receipts, invoices and financial ledgers shows major expenses with so little detail it's difficult to know how the money was spent. One major example: $90,000 the board paid to Alton Hooker since 2014 for technology services.

Hooker, a Pinellas County schools' employee, billed his services under the name T&K Computer, a firm that isn't registered to do business in Florida.

He charged $1,875 in most months at a rate of $75 per hour, but records don't show what he did.

"Who told you to come after me? Why am I getting drug into this?" Hooker said before hanging up.

His wife, Shari, is friends with Donna Welch. In 2011, Hooker formed a nonprofit, Caring for Girl's Academy. Records filed each year list Welch as a director. Shari Hooker told the Times she didn't know Welch served on the nonprofit's board.

"I have no knowledge of what she does for it," Hooker said. "I don't know anything about it."

She then hung up.

In a statement, Welch described her relationship with Shari Hooker as a "another form of community partnership to service those in need in our community."

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Another major recipient of spending by the Faith-Based Literacy & Technology Program was a church operated by Commissioner Ken Welch's family. Located on 37th Street South, Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ received the most money among eight churches the past two years, records show.

It collected $9,800 for rent and field trips to zoos, museums, movie theaters and karate classes, records show.

The church has one of the highest attendance rates in the summer for the reading program, but one of the lowest during the academic year. An average of eight students, for instance, attended during the 2017-2018 school year, but 40 attended in the summer. In comparison, 25 attended Southside Tabernacle on 18th Avenue South during the school year and 19 attended in the summer, records show. Southside received $6,300 the past two years.

Donna Welch said it was no secret that her family's church participated in the reading program, where she hired a nephew, a Tampa teacher, to tutor students.

Marcie Biddleman, the Juvenile Welfare Board executive director, said Welch operated with little scrutiny.

"The oversight was with the Sanderlin CEO," Biddleman said.

Lounell Britt, the Sanderlin executive director who quit in June, said she wasn't responsible.

"Donna Welch spent the money how she wanted," Britt said. "I had nothing to do with it."

Welch justified the spending by pointing to former students.

"Many students have gone on to graduate from college and have come back to volunteer in the program," her statement said.

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The board didn't give money directly to Sanderlin, but it reimbursed expenses. In some cases, the board sent payments to vendors.

When Welch spent thousands on snacks or computers and furniture at big-box stores, she submitted shopping lists with prices. The Juvenile Welfare Board often issued a check the following week. Welch then purchased the items and made deliveries to churches, records show.

To get reimbursed for program supplies, she redacted her items and sales tax.

In September 2017, Welch spent $1,365 on furniture and computer equipment from Walmart, Barnes & Noble and Office Depot. None of the 10 pages of invoices list where the equipment ended up.

Welch said the supplies all went to churches and some were tracked in binders at Sanderlin.

Juvenile Welfare Board CFO Brian Jaruszewski said Sanderlin leaders should have applied more scrutiny to the purchases.

"We don't micromanage or dictate how somebody operates a program," he said. "It's ultimately Sanderlin's contract with the dollars."

In one 2017 purchase, Welch paid $60 for backpacks at Big Lots. The receipt lists the buyer as My Daughter's Keeper -- her nonprofit organization. Welch said Big Lots didn't have Sanderlin listed as tax exempt, and it saved a few dollars in taxes by charging it to her nonprofit.

"There are probably better ways to approach it," Jaruszewski said.

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

Correction: An earlier version of this story 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 article 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.

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