TAMPA, Florida (11/10/15) – A U.S. senator from Iowa, concerned about taxpayer waste, is calling for more accountability of how the Tampa Housing Authority uses federal money following a series of 10 Investigates reports exposing questionable spending.
The agency, tasked with helping disadvantaged families get into affordable housing, has spent millions of dollars on its office headquarters, executive raises, and administrative travel; as well as more than $450,000 in the last decade with controversial public relations consultant Beth Leytham.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote a letter this week criticizing the Tampa Housing Authority (THA) for employing three individuals in its public relations department while also paying Leytham for public relations consulting. The letters were sent to U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julian Castro and THA Executive Director Jerome Ryans, asking for records documenting where the public relations money was going and how it was awarded.
"This is yet another example of the housing authority's failure to ensure that federal tax dollars are spent wisely to actually provide housing to the poor," Grassley wrote.
10 Investigates recently spotlighted the close relationship between Leytham and numerous elected officials in charge of government contracts, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has direct influence over the Tampa Housing Authority through his appointments of board members.
While The Leytham Group was performing consulting work for the THA prior to Buckhorn's tenure as mayor, the firm's fees for "strategic communications" have increased significantly since Buckhorn took office in 2011. Leytham collected $76,841 from the THA last year – nearly double what she made prior to Buckhorn's election - and she is on pace to earn $60,000 from the agency this year.
Those THA expenditures are on top of the $121,000 earned by the agency's public relations director, Lillian Stringer (as of 2013). THA also employs a records management liaison officer and a marketing and communications officer.
Despite the seemingly abundance of manpower, THA has at times failed to respond to 10 Investigates' public records requests in a timely manner.
When asked why a $5,000 a month contract with Leytham was in taxpayers' best interests, Stringer told 10 Investigates in October that "I can't do it all." When asked which tasks she couldn't perform, Stringer said, "I can do it, but it's always good to have another person to have a set of eyes on it."
Stringer added that Leytham has provided assistance for years in developing occasional op-ed pieces for local newspapers, she consults with Stringer in-person for two hours a month, she has assisted in reworking job descriptions, and she also runs the agency's social media presence. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Tampa Housing Authority's Facebook page had 802 followers and its Twitter page had 98.
Leytham also may have had a role in THA's hiring of marketing firm Chappel Roberts, another politically-connected Tampa company, for its recent West River Project. Chappel Roberts has long been a close partner of The Leytham Group, most recently teaming up on the controversial Go Hillsborough public outreach.
Among the documents Grassley requested from the housing authority were the request for proposals (RFP) related to Leytham's contracts. Those documents, obtained by 10 Investigates during the course of previous reporting, show that the agency put its outside public relations consulting work out to bid in both 2011 and 2014.
But Leytham, who had been doing the job since 2006, was the only contractor to respond to either of the RFPs.
Grassley first noticed the 10 Investigates reporting in 2013 after a series exposed how much money the THA was spending on travel and training. He spoke of the investigations on the Senate floor and called the agency one of the most wasteful he had ever seen.
His letter this week also demanded an update of THA's travel and training expenditures as well as documents referenced in a recent Tampa Tribune report regarding the $36,000 the THA quietly spent on "positive spin" stories in online magazine 83 Degrees.
"It is … the responsibility of federally funded programs to practice full disclosure and transparency," Grassley wrote. "The public should have the benefit of knowing when they're seeing neutral content and when the content is bought and paid for to express a certain point of view."
Leytham declined 10 Investigates' interview request Tuesday and speaking on behalf of the THA, said none of the executives would be available to comment.
The THA later released an email statement that read, in part, "public relations is an important tool in promoting and supporting community building, addressing potential issues proactively, and in helping integrate our residents more fully into the center city communities and close in neighborhoods. To assist us, we leverage outside consultants and services as well as strategic sponsorships; however, these public relations efforts represent less than one half of one percent of THA’s entire annual budget."
11/13/15 UPDATE: Stringer responded to 10 Investigates’ report, claiming she was “grossly misquoted” and would like the record to reflect that. However, the reported quotes were directly transcribed from a mid-October phone call between Stringer and a 10 Investigates reporter; 10 News WTSP stands by the original reporting.
Stringer also contended Leytham does not work on THA’s social media, but does provide numerous services to the agency’s CEO and COO as well.
Public records show Stringer’s response was crafted by Leytham.
PREVIOUS TAMPA HOUSING AUTHORITY COVERAGE:
2/17/15 - 10 Investigates stories exposes HUD ethic problems
5/21/14 - Mayor Buckhorn talks THA
1/29/14 - Grassley addresses THA investigation on Senate floor
12/10/13 - Feds probing into THA
11/6/13 - THA spent hundreds of thousands on travel
PREVIOUS LEYTHAM COVERAGE:
11/5/15 - Go Hillsborough advances despite lingering suspicion
11/4/15 - 10 Investigates prompts commission ethics tussle
10/26/15 - 10 Investigates gets emails officials said didn't exist
10/7/15 - Hillsborough moves to save transportation expansion
10/1/15 - Tampa cancels out Leytham-related contract
9/29/15 - Buckhorn administration steered more work to Leytham
9/25/15 - Sheriff begins criminal investigation into Go Hillsborough
9/23/15 - 10 Investigates prompts major lobbyist reform proposal
9/23/15 - Times editorial says county needs to answer 10 Investigates questions
9/22/15 - Have Leytham connections doomed Go Hillsborough?
9/21/15 - County suspends contractor work on Go Hillsborough
9/17/15 - Tampa council rescinds Leytham-related contract
9/16/15 - Hillsborough Commission orders review after 10 Investigates story
9/15/15 - Hillsborough Co. fails to police lobbyists
9/14/15 - How a political consultant is calling the shots; and getting your tax dollars