ST. PETERSBURG — When the St. Petersburg Housing Authority went looking for a new public relations firm, then-CEO Tony Love wanted Elle Resources.
Owned by Michelle Ligon, the firm’s bid in May 2018 of just $2,500 a month was half that of two better known companies also vying for the work.
But over the next eight months, Ligon was paid $5,000 every month, twice the maximum amount allowed by the fixed-price contract, records show.
And when Ligon missed a deadline to bid for the next contract in March, Love ordered the agency’s human resources director to put her on the agency’s payroll as a temporary contract employee and, later, scrapped the bid process.
Ligon also got a pay bump, pushing her earnings to $6,250 every month. In all, she was paid another $40,625 through payroll in a little more than six months even though she was not under contract.
Those payments are among the “serious lapses” in handling contracts unearthed in a U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development review of the troubled agency that found eight violations of federal regulations.
Among the other findings:
- The Housing Authority issued contracts to companies without seeking bids from competing firms.
- It bypassed its procurement process when hiring a development consultant and a firm to build a new website.
- The agency awarded a $280,000 contract for roof replacement as a “small purchase” contract even though the limit for those is $150,000.
- It allowed the same employee to request and approve purchase orders.
Federal officials have given the housing agency until Oct. 29 to explain the violations and how it will fix them. It’s unclear whether the housing agency will have to reimburse HUD in cases where federal funds were improperly used.
“Whether it would be sufficient to close the findings or trigger any additional actions is yet to be determined,” said HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan.
All of the cited violations occurred under the leadership of Love, who has declined to talk to the Tampa Bay Times. He was fired Aug. 30 after he placed himself on medical leave without informing Board Chairwoman Stephanie Owens, who is his boss.
Board members already had other concerns about his leadership. They wanted him to pay back $5,700 in agency funds he used to pay his personal attorney. There was an ongoing investigation into whether he created a hostile work environment. Love also had come under fire for his decision to use $27,000 of agency funds on a failed lawsuit against St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Until it finds a new CEO, the agency plans to pay up to $70,000 to the Tampa Housing Authority for its CEO Jerome Ryans to double as St. Petersburg’s interim boss.
“Hopefully, with the management of the Tampa Housing Authority, not only will we be able to respond (to HUD) but we will have cured many of the deficiencies," Owens said at a board meeting this week.
Ligon, 65, beat out established public relations firms Tucker Hall and a joint bid from Brock Communications and Kippen Communications for the 2018 contract. It proved to be worth $45,000.
Court records show Ligon has had financial difficulties in the past, including a mortgage foreclosure and IRS liens. She told the Times those issues are all resolved.
Her three-page application to the Housing Authority did not list any previous clients. It stated that her qualifications would be provided in a separate attachment but that was never part of her application, according to interim CEO LaShunda Battle.
When asked by a reporter to provide the names of previous clients, Ligon said she was contracted in early 2018 to provide communications for about five months for Norstar Development, the firm partnering with the Housing Authority on the redevelopment of Jordan Park. A Norstar official acknowledged that she worked for them but had no further comment.
Ligon declined to provide the names of other clients, saying only that she served as chief compliance officer for a number of firms. That role included a marketing function, she said.
When asked why she continually invoiced at twice the maximum amount allowed in the contract, Ligon said she agreed to take on additional work and hours that exceeded the normal contract. That included helping the agency transition to Rental Assistance Demonstration, a voluntary federal program intended to help local housing agencies find new funds to rehab and develop public housing.
Love approved her invoices for payment .
When her extended agreement expired Feb. 28, the Housing Authority bid out a new one-year contract with a deadline of March 20 to respond.
At the same time, Love told HR director Jackie Roberson to advertise the job so the agency could hire someone.
Ligon was one of two applicants. She was chosen by Love, who instructed Roberson to put her on the payroll as a temporary contract employee working 25 hours every two weeks at $125 per hour.
Her first pay stub shows she started work on March 3. No human resources file was created for her, as is standard for employees. In an email sent earlier this month, Roberson said that was not required for contract employees.
But she acknowledged to board members that paying a contractor through payroll was outside of board policy and that she had no written record authorizing the payments.
“I was following the lead of my boss and I didn’t task too many questions,” said Roberson, who has been with the agency for 21 years.
Even as Ligon was being paid, the bid process continued with four firms submitting applications by the 4 p.m. deadline on March 20, records show. About 50 minutes after the deadline, procurement director Pamela Hobbs found Ligon’s resume on her desk with a sticky-note. The note said let this be a place-holder for Ligon’s application.
Hobbs disqualified Ligon’s bid because it was late and incomplete.
Love scrapped the bid process in April, telling Hobbs to tell the four firms the agency was “going in a new direction.” In a memo sent Sept. 9 to Battle, the interim CEO, Hobbs wrote that she had heard that Love was unhappy about her and held her responsible for there being no ongoing contact with Ligon’s firm.
Ligon said she was being paid as an independent contractor.
“There is no way that I would have continued to provide service to the Housing Authority under any non-compliant method,” she said.
But HUD rules require a competitive process for any contract worth $3,000 or more.
“We may be responsible for repaying federal funds that have been inappropriately used,” Owens said. “We run the risk of an (Office of Inspector General) inspection because of this amount.”
A series of investigative reports earlier this year by the Times revealed a raft of other problems at the agency.
Some members of a previous governing board voted on Love’s first pay raise without being told about employee reports that he bullied and shouted at staff.
Love also lived rent-free for nine months in an apartment designated as housing for low-income families. That prompted federal officials to cite the agency, and led Kriseman to recommend City Council remove three members of the board. Two other board members were replaced when Kriseman declined to reappoint them to second terms..
Board members facing removal were among those who authorized the agency to sue Kriseman and the city of St. Petersburg in an attempt to halt the process. A judge quickly dismissed the case. A separate lawsuit filed individually by the three board members is ongoing.
Senior Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.