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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2017
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Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders

LARGO — The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board mismanaged its finances, lacked accountability and disregarded its own rules, according to a scathing report released Wednesday by the county's inspector general.

The report outlined 93 problems at the agency responsible for protecting residents from shoddy contractors, including that former executive director Rodney Fischer "violated county rules and ethics requirements" and that a member of the agency's governing board "misused his position."

The licensing board is "weak and cannot provide meaningful assurance to stakeholders that financial reporting is reliable, assets are safeguarded, operations are efficient and effective, laws and regulations are complied with," the report said.

It added: "The tone at the top of the PCCLB has not created a strong ethical environment."

 

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD

 

Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process

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The inspector general also found that two of the agency's employees committed "time and attendance fraud" by spending hundreds of work hours at their homes, shopping centers, a fitness center and a shooting range. One of them also misused a restricted database, the report stated.

The grand jury investigating the licensing board also issued its report Wednesday that recommended the agency remain independent, but that it should undergo a major overhaul to make it more accountable and transparent. The grand jury did not issue any criminal indictments.

Pinellas County Commission chair Janet Long said it troubles her that the grand jury would recommend the agency stay independent when lack of oversight is the reason why it failed to protect homeowners and contractors in the first place.

"It's disappointing in terms of protecting our consumers," Long said.

The Pinellas licensing board is the only one of its kind in the state, a public agency that reports to a board of private contractors and public building officials, not county government. It was created by the Florida Legislature in 1973 and only lawmakers can reshape the agency.

A series of Tampa Bay Times reports starting late last year raised questions about how the agency operated under Fischer, how its leaders and staff conducted themselves and whether it treated consumers and contractors fairly.

The investigation, and the resulting outcry from local politicians, prompted Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe to convene the grand jury. Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr.'s also began his comprehensive look at the agency.

Collazo's 180-page report outlined how the lack of accountability and transparency impacted nearly every area of the board's operations. Among other things, he found that:

• An air conditioning contractor on the board, Jack Joyner, misused his position to push through a rule change that could lower the costs for contractors installing air conditioners. Joyner should have abstained from voting and did not file a disclosure form that outlined the conflict.

• In July, the agency paid Joyner's firm $303 to repair its air conditioner. Paying a board member's company created another conflict of interest.

• Fischer, who is also a contractor, received preferential treatment because he hasn't submitted proof of insurance since 1994.

• The agency did not have proper procedures in place to safeguard the cash it collected when contractors paid fines and fees. Cash, check and credit card receipts were not secured during work hours. Five workers also had the combination to the safe.

• The agency cannot reconcile all unpaid fines from contractors. Some of the unpaid fines go back to 2002 in its accounting system.

• The board's financial statements were not printed, reviewed or saved on a monthly basis.

• Employees shared passwords to a database that contained Social Security numbers, names, addresses and other personal information for residents. The agency kept no log of employees who searched that database.

• The agency failed to protect files that contained credit reports for contractors. The safe and files were located in a room next to the customer service counter.

"Currently, there is no independent oversight of the PCCLB's staff and activities," the inspector general report stated. "The result is an absence of accountability, lack of transparency, and inconsistency in conducting day-to-day operations."

The inspector general opened separate investigations into two agency employees — Paul Roberts and Anthony DeBernardi — after a preliminary review of GPS data collected from their work cars indicated they might have been misusing their time.

From April 2015 to March 2017, Roberts, an investigator at the agency, parked his work car at his home, other residences, shopping centers, and a shooting range for 920 hours, the GPS analysis found. During the same time span, DeBernardi, also an investigator, parked at a bakery, a gym, a shopping center and other non-work locations for almost 526 hours.

The inspector general also began surveilling Roberts and DeBernardi, which confirmed that they were spending their work hours on non-work activities. The reports on the two men concluded that, even accounting for lunch and other breaks, they wasted hundreds of hours on personal activities.

Roberts also spent an "excessive" amount of time searching non-work related websites when he was in the office, including shopping, real estate and weapons sites, the inspector general concluded.

DeBernardi was accused of flashing his PCCLB badge as if he was a law enforcement officer during an altercation outside of work hours, the report stated. He then used a restricted database to look up information on the person he confronted.

After the inspector general revealed the findings to the two men, Roberts agreed to retire and DeBernardi resigned.

In an interview with the Times late Wednesday, Roberts denied the allegations, saying Fischer allowed investigators to work flexible hours, not just 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"They have no idea of all the hours I work on evenings or weekends," he said. "They didn't see that. Rod Fischer gave us that flexibility."

DeBernardi did not return a call for comment.

The two men were able to "misuse county time and equipment because there was minimal oversight of investigators and management was not regularly reviewing GPS data from investigators' vehicles," the reports stated.

The grand jury report released Wednesday rejected the option most favored by the Pinellas County Commission: fold the troubled agency under county government oversight. The grand jury said there would be tension and even conflict between the county and its cities in policing contractors and enforcing building codes.

So the grand jury instead said "the public interest is best served by the Board retaining its independence but with significant changes ..."

The grand jury recommended that the "cumbersome" 21-member board be reduced to 15 members, including three permanent public officials and 12 members appointed by the county commission. The agency should also be subject to county audit and it should issue an annual report on its operations and finances to the public.

County Commissioner Ken Welch said he still favors a takeover. But he said both reports will help reform the agency, in whatever form that takes.

"It moves us closer to a model that might work," he said.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said that on Monday he will introduce legislation to implement the grand jury recommendations.

"I have been waiting on this report from the grand jury," Latvala said. "I think they did a very thorough review."

But State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the only law he will support is one that abolishes the agency.

"It needs to go away," he said.

Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report. Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

 
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