One of the more interesting assignments I had was covering the Bradenton Housing Authority after a federal raid and investigation.
At the time of the raid, the paper hadn’t regularly covered the BHA meetings for at least a year, thanks to layoffs and cuts. I was asked to cover what was going on to assist a rookie reporter and the crime desk. The crime desk covered the initial raid and as the crime beat picked up with activity, I had to take the BHA over full time until another city reporter was hired, who has since then dutifully covered the beat. Mark Young has done a great job when he came on and I was very thankful he could tackle the beat as the Mall at University Town Center and another huge land development, Lake Flores, were about to consume my beat again.
What I found was a public board that was complacent by saying yes to everything by the executive director, signing off on policies without looking at them or fully understanding them and either ignorance or apathy. And for the longest time, denial, until a few of the members came around and realized what happened.
The interim director, who was the authority’s financial director, revealed later she was the whistleblower, but the question was always why did she allow this to go on for so long and not alert anyone else? The inflated salaries for staff certainly helped keep folks quiet. The interim director was also looking for a raise from her financial director salary.
Eventually she resigned for medical reasons and so did another official making $130,000 a year. The agency saved salaries from both of them and paid an experienced director $130,000 to lead it back on track. The new director also pointed out the bias and flaws in a salary study completed under the interim director’s watch.
I filed plenty of FOIAs for this one, some still awaiting to be fulfilled because of the ongoing investigation through HUD-OIG. Just getting coherent information and documentation from the Housing Authority was a mighty struggle, where I had to rely on experts from other housing authorities to verify what I was seeing.
I tracked down the main players, who of course, weren’t willing to talk. My work also grabbed the attention of a U.S. Senator who is known for making a stink over housing authority scandals–mainly pointing out that in one way or another the federal oversight is broken. And the various state and local laws make it difficult to find a solution.
Here are the highlights of my Housing Authority coverage:
OCTOBER 6, 2013
Bradenton Housing Authority a boon for DeSues; investigation may end that
BRADENTON — For nearly 20 years, a DeSue has been in charge of the Bradenton Housing Authority serving the area’s poorest residents. In that time, dilapidated housing was razed and rebuilt, even as the family amassed luxury cars and numerous homes and started and dissolved several nonprofits with stated missions of helping the poor.
But the DeSue legacy may have come to an end when Wenston DeSue was escorted off housing authority property along with his special projects manager, who is also his live-in girlfriend.
Federal agents are investigating the housing authority and have confiscated payroll records, travel expense forms and employee files from the agency’s offices and a storage shed in Bradenton. Five days after the raid last month, DeSue and his girlfriend, Stephany West, were fired by the housing authority board.
When FBI agents, working with the Office of the Inspector General, executed the search warrants, they seized a network server, payroll files, a $25,000 consultant contract between William DeSue Sr. and the Bradenton
Housing Authority, Wenston DeSue’s employment contract, personnel files and minutes of board meetings, said Darcy Branch, who was appointed the Bradenton Housing Authority’s interim director. The Bradenton Herald requested the records, but Branch said there were no copies.
There have been complaints and allegations about the Bradenton Housing Authority for years, according to public officials. Topping the list are the staff’s salaries, which are among the highest in the region, even though the Bradenton Housing Authority is one of the smallest in the region; take-home cars provided for at least half the administrative staff; and questions about whether the staff, particularly DeSue and West, actually work full time.
The Section 8 housing voucher program is a federal program that helps very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled pay for housing in the private market. With just 122 housing units and 199 Section 8 housing vouchers, the Bradenton Housing Authority is actually one of the smallest housing authorities in the state. It has fewer than a dozen employees, including the executive director. Its 2013 operating budget is $3.9 million, with $14 million listed in assets.
The housing authority is so small it is not required to file an annual plan, Branch said.
But for a small housing authority, others in the industry say it doesn’t seem to have limits.
Half of the small staff have take-home cars purchased by the housing authority. In addition to the executive director, two property managers and two workers on the maintenance staff have cars to use full time, Branch said.
When DeSue was fired, he had to give up his 2013 Ford Focus from the agency. He is now driving an Audi A6 with 30-day tags.
When approached at the Sarasota condo West and DeSue share, DeSue told a Herald reporter, “We have no comment.” When asked whether they had a lawyer who would speak for either of them, he replied, “No.”
Salaries at the agency last year ranged from $163,000 to $35,000 for the lowest-paid employee, a facilities aide, according to housing authority documents. All nine employees got an annual bonus in addition to base salary. The housing authority’s board approved 10 percent across-the-board bonuses for last year, which were delivered in March.
All Bradenton Housing Authority employees also get a full benefits package, including a 401(k) plan.
Wenston DeSue received a raise in March, when the board approved the bonuses, bringing his salary to $171,060, according to housing authority records.
A new bonus policy approved by the board went into effect in February, changing the system from a flat bonus based on position level to a percentage-based bonus ranging from zero to 10 percent. The maximum bonus for the executive director under the previous policy was $5,000. In March, that more than tripled to $16,200.
The new bonus policy approved by the board states that “the executive director will have the authority to determine the percentage for bonus amounts for all positions not to exceed the limit as stated.”
“This year was the first year the board approved a 10 percent bonus for everyone,” Branch said.
The personnel policies and procedures manual were also updated. According to employee policies, unused vacation and sick time can be cashed out in a lump sum when an employee is terminated, resigns or dies at the rate of pay on the date of termination.
Housing Authority employees also got two weeks off for the Christmas holiday, according to housing authority newsletters from the past two years. Those letters informed residents that the housing authority’s administrative office would be closed from Dec. 20 to Jan. 2 for the holidays, but that rents still needed to be paid in that time to avoid eviction.
Residents cite issues
Several housing authority residents, who did not want to be named for fear of retribution, say they are charged about $38 an hour in maintenance fees for repairs. They also say the offices sometimes close for a half-day with no notice, leaving no one to help them.
According to a lease agreement, tenants are responsible for “the cost of services or repairs due to intentional or negligent damage to the dwelling unit, common areas or grounds beyond normal wear and tear, caused by tenant, household members or by guests.”
Such damage includes cigarette butts someone may leave in front of a resident’s home. The residents are charged $36.85 if cigarette butts are discovered.
But residents say the housing authority’s staff is not keeping up with the maintenance on the apartments that were built just a dozen years ago. Once again there is water intrusion in the building, roof leaks and mold, residents say.
Mary Bryant, 57, said problems became so bad she called the city’s code enforcement division. When city officials came out, she told the Herald on Friday, they found more than 100 violations in the apartments they inspected.
Bryant has dozens of photos of water in her apartment, around her windows, leaking through the ceiling of the second-floor apartment, and on the floors beneath her windows. She also has photos of mold on her ceiling, around her windows and covering things stored in her closet, including leather purses and a leather coat.
She is disabled, with portions of both of her feet amputated, and has a rare blood disease.
Her doctors have sent letters to the housing authority to move her out of the mold-infested apartment and to put her in a first-floor handicapped accessible apartment, but to no avail. Instead, the housing authority painted over the mold while she had a recent stay in the hospital. But she still has the leaks around her windows, she said.
Her doctors have also asked that she be put in a handicapped accessible apartment on the ground floor because her balance is poor and she has to use a walkers to get around. She is unable to walk up or down the stairs and when the elevator breaks down — which happens fairly often, she said — she is stuck.
Undoing elder DeSue’s fixes?
In 1993, the housing authority was under another federal investigation when William DeSue Sr. took over. Then-director Kercia Dowling resigned along with five housing authority commissioners Aug. 31, 1993 because of severe maintenance issues at G.D. Rogers Garden Park Apartments, W.D. Sugg Dwellings and the W.H. Page Apartments.
The elder DeSue, who has a master’s degree in public administration from North Florida University, was made the permanent director seven months later and given a $46,000 annual salary. Within six years, his agency received $21 million in federal Hope VI grants to clean up blighted public housing that was prone to annual flooding, had leaking roofs and had been poorly maintained. The housing authority razed apartments and sold off land, including a $1.5 million parcel where Rogers Garden Elementary school now stands.
When he retired in 2006, DeSue was making $133,000 and owned several homes, including two that now are Section 8 rentals through the housing authority.
The housing authority conducted a national search, netting 44 applicants for the job. Among them was his son, Wenston DeSue, who had no housing authority experience, but had created a nonprofit aimed at helping poor people.
The housing authority board chose Wenston DeSue for the position over experienced national candidates, but acknowledged then that he didn’t have the experience to run the authority and didn’t know HUD rules. So they offered his father a $25,000 consultant’s contract to train his son.
In 2008, DeSue hired West, who was earning $68,349 when she was fired last month.
West had some housing authority experience, according to her resume. She worked for the District of Columbia Housing Authority from July 2003 to November 2005 as a compliance specialist director, before taking a customer service position with a National Institutes of Health contractor in Bethesda, Md. That was her final job in Maryland before being hired in 2007 by Beneficial Communities in Sarasota as an asset management program coordinator.
Unusual nonprofit network
After he was hired, Wenston DeSue quickly parlayed his position into a network of nonprofit groups, all with the theme of helping poor people find housing and jobs, records obtained by the Herald show. Several of the companies that DeSue registered with the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations — naming himself as the agent — are actually Bradenton Housing Authority entities. Wenston DeSue added Stephany West as an officer.
Brenda Tadlock, director of the State Division of Corporations, said it is unusual and unnecessary for a housing authority to register with them, since authorities are created under state statute.
West, DeSue and the housing authority board members — Napolean Mills, Perla Bonilla, Rigo Rivera, Doug Jones and Lois Gerber — are registered to Village Group Partners Inc., also a housing authority entity that was registered Aug. 29, 2002. The company was originally called Bradenton Village Homeownership Inc. as a charitable organization for Hugh E. McGuire Jr., records show. The name was changed in 2008.
All five board members were called by the Herald for comment; some declined, and others did not return messages.
According to its latest 990-tax form filed with the IRS for the 2012 tax year, Village Group Partners is a real estate development company designed to help low-income families purchase or rent houses.
The company received $444,349 in government grants and another $17,112 in “developer fees” last year. It ended the tax year with $514,356 in assets. The company bought and rehabbed three houses using grants and received a total of $5,340 in rents.
Along with registering six different Bradenton Housing Authority entities with the state, Wenston DeSue had several other nonprofits registered in his name and West’s, who also uses the name Stephanie Shaw on documents.
Neighborhood Partnership for Assisted Housing Corp. was created in 2002. Community Housing Development and Associates Inc. was created Nov. 29, 2012. Both entities list their corporate address as 3780 Parkridge Circle — the address of the condo leased by the couple in Sarasota County.
The last update to the Neighborhood Partnership was made March 25. Other officers included in the company are DeSue, Mark Lucas of Brandon and J.R. Silverthorne of Sarasota. The last tax return for the company was from 2011 and filed July 2012. The tax return shows no income or assets for the nonprofit. It also indicates that board members were not paid. The tax return does indicate, however, that there was a “significant diversion of the organization’s assets.”
While they are not housing authority entities, the nonprofits are not kept entirely separate. DeSue’s and West’s business cards for Community Housing Development and Associates, a nonprofit officials say is not affiliated with the housing authority, list their housing authority cell phones as the way to contact them.
One of the questions in the investigation is whether DeSue and West were actually at work when they were supposed to be overseeing the authority and ensuring housing was properly maintained, sources told the Herald.
Alicia DeSue said her husband told her that the housing authority paid for him and West to take real estate classes to save the authority money on real estate transactions.
“If they took the classes, then they could take out that middle man,” she recalled him explaining. “I said to him, ‘Why is it you two had to be the ones to take them?’ He told me everybody is busy and they wouldn’t have the time to leave.”
Alicia DeSue said she is surprised no investigators have come out to talk to her about the allegations against her husband that led to him being fired.
“I have been wondering how I could get a hold of them because no one has come to me,” she said.
Alicia DeSue said her husband has changed.
“The person who he is, he knows better than to get caught up in a thing like this,” she said. “When we used to watch the news together and we would see things about crime and fraud, he would always say ‘Why can’t people just do right?'”
What the DeSues own
Observers within the industry say oversight of the Bradenton Housing Authority has been neglected for far too long.
“It just seems almost frighteningly mismanaged,” said one source familiar with the public housing industry. “I don’t know how they’re getting away with it for so long.”
Most complain that board members have rubber-stamped whatever the DeSues wanted, without question.
DeSue Sr., who is also a pastor at Increasing Joy Ministries in Palmetto, lives comfortably since his retirement from the small housing authority.
He drives a Mercedes E Class and owns several homes in the area, including a three-bedroom waterfront home at 6152 9th Ave Circle NE, built in 1995 and valued at $441,418. He also owns a $50,000 home at 210 10th Ave. Dr. W in the Singletary subdivision, another home at 507 E 23rd St., in Palmetto worth $81,000 and homes at 1002, 1006 2nd St. W and 0.1148 acre of vacant land at 1008 2nd St. W.
Officials are questioning the consulting fee for work he did during his son’s first year on the job. Such nepotism is prohibited, according to officials familiar with the situation, and the blame lies as much with the board members, sources familiar with HUD regulations said.
“I’m not leaving Wenston off the hook, but they have huge fiduciary responsibilities,” a housing authority official said. Another official said the long-term board members put a lot of trust in the DeSues, and gave them “a lot of leeway.”
On his resume, Wenston DeSue lists working for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management as a mortgage analyst, a corporate trainer for US Spring Companies in Atlanta, various human resources positions with GE Capital Companies in Tampa, and a start-up nonprofit with a $1.75 million operating budget.
In 2006, the year he was hired, Wenston DeSue bought a home at 9223 54th Court E. in Parrish for $360,000 from LeRoy McDonald. It’s a 3,286-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bath home.
DeSue registered several of the Bradenton Housing Authority limited liability corporations at the Parrish home.
Alicia DeSue filed for divorce in July 2012, court records show. She still lives in the couple’s Parrish home as they go through mediation, but Wenston DeSue has since moved out and lives with West.
What happens now?
The Manatee County Housing Authority is a separate agency, established in 1969. According to its website, it has 15 employees.
Executive Director Rob Rogers Jr. has been with this agency for 34 years, makes $160,000 and does not receive bonuses.
“We don’t give them,” Rogers said.
The Sarasota Housing Authority, which was once placed in receivership by HUD, has a former deputy assistant secretary for HUD in Washington leading it. Bill Russell, who has years of experience and turned around the troubled housing agency, makes $162,000, including bonuses.
Observers say it would be best that the Bradenton Housing Authority be merged with another local housing authority. Rogers has long been supportive of merging the Bradenton Housing Authority with his.
“I think it makes sense,” Rogers said. “I’ve been trying to have the two work together and merge for a long time We do the same job, and we assist the same people in the same locality.”
Rogers’ housing authority manages about five times more Section 8 housing than Bradenton’s, but has a smaller public housing presence, he said.
— Business Editor Toni Whitt contributed to this report.
Bradenton Housing Authority freezes bonuses, raises as it faces deficit
BRADENTON — The Bradenton Housing Authority is freezing salaries and bonuses as it faces a deficit of more than $400,000, at the same time it is under the scrutiny of federal investigators.
The federal investigation led to the ouster of executive director Wenston DeSue and projects manager Stephany West — but not before DeSue got a 10 percent annual bonus and took his entire annual raise in a lump sum payment, factors that led to the impending deficit, the Bradenton Herald has learned.
The authority’s board of commissioners met Thursday morning and unanimously approved a revision to the current budget, putting a freeze on all employee bonuses, raises and cashing out of sick time. The changes prepared by acting Executive Director Darcy Branch will also leave DeSue’s and West’s jobs vacant.
“As acting executive interim director, this budget revision will help move the housing authority forward to a better fiscal standing for this year,” Branch said. “The remaining employees of the housing authority are doing their best to serve the residents and help make their lives better.”
Branch said she has not had any more communication with federal investigators about potential action or charges from the housing authority investigation.
Housing authority commissioners at last week’s meeting were Chairman Napoleon Mills, Charles Grace, Rigo Rivera and Lois Gerber. Board member Jahna Leinhauser was not in attendance, citing work conflicts. Rivera directed all questions to Branch, while the remaining board members did not return the Herald’s calls seeking comment. DeSue and West also did not return calls for comment.
The changes made will remain in effect through
next fiscal year as well, and will reflect a savings of more than $525,000 for the housing authority’s annual operating costs, according to a budget revision document Branch provided to the board. The estimated operating budget for this fiscal year ending March 31, 2014, is nearly $1.9 million.
Housing authority documents reveal that the cause of the deficit were major expenditures approved by DeSue during the first part of the fiscal year including bonuses, sick-time cash-out for all employees and cost-of-living raises provided to all employees. DeSue took his raise in one lump sum. Any employee who received a bonus was paid in June, while up to 160 hours of sick time could be cashed out twice a year and at any time in the year.
Federal investigators seized records showing the total amount of sick time employees cashed out. Investigators also took all payroll records.
Even with the changes approved Thursday, the housing authority is still running toward a deficit of more than $302,000. Branch said she and her staff will try to cut costs wherever possible without affecting operations.
DeSue restructured benefits
The housing authority’s benefits package was updated during DeSue’s tenure — a time during the Great Recession when many employees across the country saw fewer benefits and even pay cuts or layoffs.
The housing authority’s board of commissioners must approve revisions to bonuses and the personnel manual. Revisions to the manual were drafted by DeSue with no known guidance from HUD, the board or an attorney, according to Branch.
As part of the housing authority’s bonus policy that was updated Feb. 20, the executive director is allowed to determine the percentage for bonus amounts as long as it’s between zero and 10 percent of the base salary, and to pay those bonuses to employees in the first paycheck in June. All full-time employees who worked at least one full year are eligible for bonuses, according to the policy. DeSue recommended 10-percent bonuses to all employees this year. DeSue himself received a $17,000-plus bonus.
According to e-mail records obtained by the Herald, then-board commissioner Scott Rudacille raised questions in 2012 when DeSue wanted to provide performance-based bonuses. Board members were not presented with any draft bonus policy to approve at a July 2012 meeting, but instead received a resolution to approve a bonus policy.
The bonus policy was pitched as a performance-based bonus structure required by HUD, DeSue wrote in the e-mails. But Branch said that to her knowledge, board members were not presented with any HUD documentation discussing bonuses.
Rudacille, a Bradenton attorney, also asked via e-mail about the legality of the bonuses and requested DeSue to produce documentation from HUD explaining that the bonuses were OK to give out for a quasi-governmental agency in Florida. DeSue assured Rudacille in a response the day before the July 18, 2012, meeting that the bonus structure was OK.
But the board decided to table the request until the September meeting, waiting for more research and documentation from HUD, and also recommended keeping the tiered bonus structure in place, e-mails show.
DeSue then issued a memo Sept. 12, 2012, explaining that HUD and the authority’s New Jersey-based auditor Fallon & Larsen recommended that the authority should have performance-based bonuses instead of its existing discretionary tiered structure.
Rudacille resigned in January, and the housing authority board in February approved the new bonus policy, which still lacks performance language, housing authority records show.
Rudacille, reached by the Herald, declined to comment.
Bonuses, sick time added up
The annual bonuses approved by the Bradenton board are in addition to longevity bonuses, paying between $100 to up to a month’s pay depending on length of service. Longevity bonuses now are also frozen, Branch said. DeSue and West would have been eligible for one week of extra pay, according to the policy.
A pro-rated awards clause shows that if a housing authority employee works five or more years and decides to take an extended leave for the year, the employee will receive a pro-rated bonus. The new bonus policy did not define extended leave, though the previous policy defined extended leave as maternity or sick time. All full-time employees are expected to work four 10-hour days from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. each week, according to the authority’s personnel manual.
Employees who voluntarily resign or retire also receive pro-rated bonus pay, according to the policy.
The housing authority’s sick time policy was updated in 2010. Full-time permanent employees get 15 hours of sick leave each month and are allowed to roll over up to 480 hours of sick time to the following year; workers still had to have at least 40 hours of sick time available after the withdrawal. Within that, employees can cash out between 40 hours and 160 hours of sick time twice a calendar year, according to the personnel manual.
Based on DeSue’s salary, he could have cashed out between $7,127.50 and $28,510 at a time. A budget shortfall would not allow such cash withdrawals, according to the personnel manual.
Additionally, a lump sum of unused sick leave can be paid out to employees who either resigned, died or were fired, according to the manual.
The authority also allowed employees to transfer vacation hours to be used for sick leave draws. Employees would also receive a bonus vacation day for every five years of service.
DeSue, who started as executive director in 2006 without any housing authority experience, made $171,060 before he was fired, while West made $68,349, according to authority’s documents.
DeSue’s most recent employment contract, approved Feb. 15, 2012, gave him a seven-year deal that started his base pay at $162,926.40, with a 3 percent annual raise starting Jan. 1, 2013. That was the minimum amount for his raises, according to the contract, regardless of what his annual evaluation reflected.
An additional 3 percent of DeSue’s salary would be placed in a deferred compensation program, providing him with a $50,000 whole life insurance policy, a take-home car and health insurance, according to his contract.
Terminating DeSue with cause, as the authority did, should negate any further benefits from the contract. If DeSue were to have resigned while in good standing or died, DeSue or his heirs would receive three years’ worth of severance, according to the contract.
HUD: DeSue salary excessive
In 2011, HUD found through a national audit that the highest-paid housing authority managers were receiving “a significant share of their compensation through bonuses,” according to a HUD briefing. HUD reached out to public housing authorities in August 2011 requesting the compensation of the top five compensated employees for the audit.
HUD found that a federal salary cap created by Congress left a loophole that allowed excessive pay through bonuses, so it decided to form its own cap to prevent the excessive pay, according to the briefing. HUD stated that it would work with Congress to create a permanent fix, but enacted a cap in fiscal 2013 through executive action, to remain indefinitely. The congressional cap only counted salary and not bonuses, leaving wiggle room for executives to pad their salary.
HUD’s salary cap is based on the number of housing units an authority manages. It also includes a cost-of-living adjustment based on the housing authority’s geographic location and average salaries in the region. Bradenton Housing Authority serves fewer than 250 units, and the executive director’s salary would fall in a range of $74,628 to $88,349, according to the HUD briefing.
DeSue’s base salary was more than triple the median salary, which included bonuses, of the highest-paid housing authority employees in an eight-state region that includes Florida, plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. For agencies with fewer than 250 federal public housing units, the median salary was $47,898, according to HUD’s 2010 data.
Even the average for the highest-paid executives at the largest agencies in the country averaged less than what DeSue made when he left the housing authority, according to HUD data. The highest paid executives in California, Arizona, Hawaii or Nevada overseeing more than 1,250 HUD units averaged $167,545, according to HUD.
HUD then began requiring more detailed annual disclosures from housing authorities to see what percentage of staff’s salaries are federally funded, according to the briefing.
Mayor, council appoint board
The Bradenton Housing Authority commission members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.
But Mayor Wayne Poston and Gene Brown, city council liaison for the housing authority, said they had no idea what was going on at the housing authority and were limited in the power they had to act.
“We never had reason to do that. We elected the board and it was our power to do that,” said Poston, who also said his schedule did not permit him to attend board meetings and that it was not mandatory for him to do so.
Brown, who was appointed as liaison in January, said he was told it was not in his duties to attend board meetings, but he also had scheduling conflicts that prevented him from attending.
“I didn’t know about the meetings. We weren’t noticed of those meetings,” said Brown.
According to state statute 421.07, a mayor and his governing body can remove housing authority commissioners or board members for inefficiency or neglect or misconduct in office.
— Herald reporter Janey Tate contributed to this report.
NOVEMBER 20, 2013
Bradenton Housing Authority considering interim director as new leader, at almost $122,000 a year
BRADENTON — The Bradenton Housing Authority’s commissioners are scheduled to consider a three-year employment contract this week for its interim executive director that calls for a nearly $122,000 annual salary.
The contract was drawn up before the board has even had an opportunity to conduct a national search for an executive director, and in the midst of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s investigation into the beleaguered housing authority and its former executive director.
Darcy Branch, the former finance director and current interim executive director, had the authority’s attorney draw up the three-year employment contract for the board’s consideration at its meeting Thursday. The contract includes Branch’s proposed salary and a start date of Nov. 21.
The Housing Authority’s agenda lists a resolution for an employment contract for Branch, who has served as the interim executive director since September when former director Wenston DeSue was fired because of an ongoing investigation by the federal Housing and Urban Development.
Attached to the agenda is a resolution for the commissioners to approve Branch’s employment and a contract. But housing authority attorney Ric Gilmore insists that the contract is a draft and is intended to “spark conversation” on what the board wants to do regarding finding a new executive director. The employment dates are defined from Nov. 21, 2013 to Nov. 20, 2016.
“Regardless of what it says, it’s a draft,” Gilmore said, saying nothing has been negotiated. He said that the employment contract was not for Branch and was completed as a sample.
But a copy of the contract, specifically for Branch with complete details and terms of her position as executive director, is included in supporting documents with the board’s agenda for Thursday.
Branch’s cover letter on her contract states: “It is with great pleasure that I am submitting to you my employment contract.”
The agenda doesn’t indicate that the authority would be discussing in general what should be the next steps, and no supporting documents are provided advising the authority of its options.
The item is up for discussion at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the authority’s main office, 2002 9th Ave. E.
“If the board wants to discuss that Thursday, I would provide any input I can give them,” Gilmore said.
Branch asked the Bradenton Herald to hold the story on her employment contract until after a decision was made Thursday.
“I just don’t want you to write about something that might not come to fruition,” Branch said, adding that the plan is likely to have the board discuss the contract and vote on it during the January meeting. Meeting minutes from October and September do not indicate the board’s desire regarding Branch’s contract or an executive director search.
When asked if it would be best to let taxpayers know and allow them to comment on the proposal, Branch said there wouldn’t be public comment on her contract, although she acknowledged later that the public could comment on the contract during the public comments portion of the meeting.
Gilmore said the board isn’t required to have a hearing on the hiring of a new executive director.
Yet the contract requires a public hearing should the board decide to fire Branch with cause at any point after the contract is signed. She also has to be notified of the termination within 30 days.
Branch also wrote to the board that “the employment contract was sent to me from Atty Ric Gilmore. He informed me that it was a standard contract, and I filled in the blanks with the information as it relates to the HACB and myself.”
Nowhere in her note to the commissioners does it indicate that the contract should be interpreted in any way other than at face value. Branch said if people want to know about the contract, they can come to the housing authority office and request an agenda and supporting documents. A bulletin board of notices is on display at the Housing Authority, but it’s behind a locked door not visible from the lobby.
The uncertainty on what the board will be doing at the meeting echoes complaints of former board members. On more than one occasion, according to former board members, the authority would bring them resolutions or items without any explanation ahead of the meeting, and the board would have little input on what appeared on the agenda.
Branch is asking for a three-year contract with a salary of $121,680, merit raises and cost-of-living adjustments, according to the draft contract. Branch made $115,898 as finance director for fiscal year ended March 31, 2013.
That proposed salary for Branch is $50,000 less than what former executive director Wenston DeSue made.
“It’s not really set in stone yet,” Branch said.
Neither Gilmore nor Branch had an explanation for why that amount is in the draft contract or what the amount is based on.
The salary does not fall in line with other housing authority salaries of its size.
Bradenton Housing Authority has 247 public housing units, with 125 of them included in Bradenton Villages. A HUD audit in 2010 found that housing authority directors across the country who oversee fewer than 250 HUD units made a median salary of $42,092, while salaries in Region 4 that include Florida had a median of $44,901.
The median salary in the 75th percentile was $61,394 in the region, according to HUD. If the Bradenton Housing Authority wanted to justify that the salary should be in the 250 to 1,249 HUD unit group, the median salary for Region 4 was $77,158 — still significantly less than the top employees’ salaries at the Bradenton Housing Authority.
Manatee County Housing Authority Executive Director Rob Rodgers, an employee of more than 34 years, makes $160,000 and does not receive a bonus. His housing authority oversees 80 HUD units plus 70 low-incoming housing units that do not receive HUD funding.
Sarasota Housing Authority Executive Director Bill Russell, a former deputy assistant secretary of public housing, makes $162,000 with bonuses. His housing authority oversees 1,850 units and has a $16 million operating budget. He started with a $140,000 salary in 2005.
The draft contract includes a stipulation to adjusting the executive director’s salary in the time of a “documented financial crises.” Branch was not sure how that would be handled with the housing authority’s deficit.
Each of the commissioners received a handbook at the October meeting to help them learn their jobs as board members. The book, “The Handbook for Commissioners by the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials,” spells out how to hire and fire an executive director, and warns that if HUD policies are not followed, the board could be liable for employment conditions beyond two years.
Branch said the board requested to “start the process” for its next executive director.
According to board minutes in both the October and September meetings, there is no documentation of the board discussing directing staff or the attorney to create a contract for Branch. The minutes do not document any direction the housing authority should take for finding its next executive director. The authority performed a national search to replace William DeSue in 2005 and ended with the board selecting his son Wenston DeSue, who has since been fired during the investigation by HUD.
In 2010, HUD audited the top salaries of each housing authority to investigate how much each executive director was making, and found loopholes in a Congressional bonus cap allowing for excessive pay through bonuses. The Congressional cap on salaries for executive directors of housing authorities is $155,000 from federal funds, said Jerry Brown, a spokesman for HUD.
HUD wants to impose its own cap, but is still collecting information before that is enacted, Brown said.
When the authority hires a new director, it will have to comply with salary limitations.
Currently, the salary cap only applies to the amount that HUD provides to the position, and each housing authority is allowed to contribute more local funding for a higher salary, said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD.
“It doesn’t preclude a housing authority finding local resources to exceed those limitations that we put in place,” Sullivan said. “It only prevents the amount that HUD contributes.” Branch wasn’t able to answer how much federal and local money would go toward the new executive director’s salary. Because a city’s housing authority is appointed by its mayor, Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston has the authority to impose a local salary cap, and also has the power to fire commissioners, Brown said.
“Your housing authority is run by your local folks there,” Brown said.
Poston said he “had no idea” if he wanted to put a salary cap on the executive director of the housing authority. “We’ll see what happens on that,” Poston said. “I’ve not really been too much involved with the housing authority other than appointing the board.”
In a previous interview with the Herald, Poston said the Housing Authority reports to HUD in Miami, but HUD officials said the only thing HUD oversees is its own federal dollars. Brown stressed that the local housing authorities, like Bradenton’s, have a great deal of local control through its mayor to address situations that may arise.
NOVEMBER 20, 2013
Bradenton Housing Authority cancels meeting on contract for new executive director
The Bradenton Housing Authority has canceled its Thursday meeting when it was expected to consider a three-year contract for its interim executive director that calls for a nearly $122,000 annual salary.
The Housing Authority’s meeting is canceled because of a lack of a quorum, interim executive director Darcy Branch told the Herald via email. The next regularly scheduled meeting will be at 8:30 a.m., Dec. 19, at the Bradenton Housing Authority office, 2002 Ninth Ave. E, she said.
NOVEMBER 24, 2013
Florida law blocks consolidating Bradenton, Manatee housing authorities
BRADENTON — Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston says he wants to hand the troubled Bradenton Housing Authority off to the Manatee County Housing Authority, but holes in Florida law are preventing any quick transition.
Florida Statute Chapter 421, which establishes powers to create and manage a housing authority in the state, hasn’t seen many updates since its creation in 1940. The Florida Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials is currently working on language to allow consolidation on the municipal and county levels.
But legislation likely is not going to be submitted before Florida’s 2015 legislative session because a series of issues must first be settled to avoid unintended consequences, said Corey Mathews, executive director of Florida Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.
The Bradenton Housing Authority has been under investigation by the federal Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General since September. The investigation prompted the authority’s board of commissioners to fire executive director Wenston DeSue and director of special projects Stephany West, who is also in a relationship with DeSue.
Poston, who has powers to appoint housing authority commissioners and remove them with the consent of the board, wants the Manatee County Housing Authority to take over the board. If that happens, Gov. Rick Scott would appoint its board members. And it’s a move Poston says he wanted to do well before federal officials raided the housing authority’s office.
“I’d like to give it to the county, which is what I tried to do for six years, but HUD says I can’t do it,” Poston said. “Well, you can do it.”
Poston said he isn’t sure why HUD said no.
“I don’t know. It’s HUD,” the mayor said.
Public housing authorities were created out of the Federal Housing Administration, predecessor of Housing and Urban Development, to allow a series of local housing authorities all following a set of standards across the country, instead of setting up federal agencies in each community. Housing authority commissioners are either appointed by a mayor in a municipality, or by another governing body for a county, such as a county commission/council or in Florida’s case, the governor.
Darcy Branch, interim executive director of the Bradenton Housing Authority, told the Herald in a previous interview that consolidation was not being considered at this time.
Rob Rogers, executive director of Manatee County Housing Authority, would like the two agencies to consolidate, too, because they serve much of the same population, especially with the Section-8 voucher program. Consolidation is not an active discussion by his board, he said, but it has been discussed in past years.
The problem with Florida law, Mathews said, is that while it allows for housing authorities from two different counties to merge to create a regional housing authority, the law is silent on allowing municipal authorities to merge with each other or with a county authority.
“I don’t think it was an intention of the legislation that this shouldn’t happen, but it was more of how it would be constructed,” he said.
The association’s membership considered pushing for this legislation for the 2014 session until it found numerous issues to be resolved last week, he said.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re careful to recommend something as an association that is going to be good for every housing authority in the state,” Mathews said.
Appointment power is a key issue, he said. What will likely be the solution is to provide for a split of appointment powers, for instance, if it’s between two mayors or between the mayor and governor.
The Alachua County Commission, however, already has power under Florida Statutes Chapter 421 to make housing authority appointments instead of the governor, he said. That power was granted as part of a special act approved in 1971.
Pasco County commissioners wanted special power to appoint its housing authority board after lax financial management, but the bill died in the Florida Senate rules committee in 2012.
Getting feedback from the Bradenton Housing Authority is proving to be difficult as the housing authority commissioners have avoided media calls and contact and canceled last week’s meeting.
Mathews said the Bradenton Housing Authority has to fix itself before it can consider consolidation.
“If we’re having that conversation with them, I’d tell them to worry about getting their house in order first,” Mathews said, who added that HUD officials told him that Bradenton Housing Authority is “moving in the right direction.”
Mathews is not privvy to the investigation’s details, but said that management issues and investigation are being handled separately.
“The concerns are enough to warrant a valid investigation,” he said.
A team from HUD is helping the Bradenton authority now to prevent the authority from going into receivership because its financial outlook is too dismal, he said. Receivership is a rare move for the worst authorities in the nation that are unable to provide basic services to its residents.
Still, even if a housing authority is facing crisis, a consolidation statue should make it clear that consolidation ought to be voluntary, Mathews said.
“We would strongly oppose any system that would be any sort of takeover attempt,” he said. “Everyone needs to evaluate the local needs and how to best put something together for the mission of the housing authorities.”
DECEMBER 20, 2013 [Initial post: Dec. 19]
HUD: Former Bradenton Housing Authority director, girlfriend took Jamaican trip during work
BRADENTON — The Bradenton Housing Authority’s former executive director and special projects director took lavish trips together during company time before they were fired, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has found.
Wenston DeSue, former executive director, and Stephany West, former special projects director and DeSue’s girlfriend, routinely worked less than 40 hours a week and billed the housing authority for work time during personal excursions, HUD officials determined.
HUD’s Office of General Counsel issued letters this week to both of them, stating they are not eligible for any HUD funding for 12 months as the investigation continues.
HUD informed Darcy Branch, Bradenton Housing Authority interim executive director, the investigation is the next step before an indictment, which is likely coming “sooner rather than later.”
The authority fired the couple in September after HUD officials seized payroll and personnel records for DeSue and West, as well as a computer server.
In its report, HUD found DeSue failed to submit any leave slips since 2009, letting work pay for his time March 14-18 in Jamaica with West during the course of a Thursday-Monday stretch of time. The BHA is closed Fridays.
West also spent an extra day March 13 in Jamaica, according to HUD. The couple also traveled to Busch Gardens in Tampa on April 9, Aug. 6 and Aug. 12, according to the report. HUD also cites April 1 as another day West was on leave without putting in for vacation or sick time.
The report does not include all HUD findings during its investigation, according to the letters.
BHA Board member Lois Gerber said HUD also discovered the authority paid for West and DeSue to attend at least one of President Barack Obama’s inaugurations.
HUD makes note of West’s various aliases in its report, including Stephanie West, Stephany Shaw and Stephanie Shaw.
The two can request a conference about their sanctions within 30 days. If granted, the conference will be held within 15 days after HUD receives the request. Within 20 days after the conference, a decision will be made.
Another option is to request a hearing through HUD’s Departmental Enforcement Center in Washington, which a more formal process.
More findings expected
The allegations against DeSue and West are similar to those against Herman Ransom, a Kansas City HUD employee sentenced to a year in prison in 2010 after going to casinos and playing tennis while claiming to be at work. He was found guilty of wire fraud and theft of public funds, according to court records, and was ordered to pay nearly $50,000 in restitution.
DeSue may have charged more trips to the housing authority than those documented by HUD, according to estranged wife Alicia DeSue.
She said her husband told her about his trip to Jamaica and the inauguration, and said they were not work-related.
“He mentioned he always wanted to go. He found a cheap ticket and he wanted to go,” she said.
Alicia DeSue did not know of his trips to Busch Gardens in Tampa, but recalls a trip DeSue took last summer to Sun-N-Fun RV park in Sarasota, which West attended. She said he told her it was an informal business trip and a developer would be meeting them there at the park. She said he would often take unconventional business trips.
“He would say if I come in on the weekend, then it’s more money on the job,” Alicia DeSue said. “He would say it’s cheaper to fly on the weekday.”
Alicia DeSue also said a master’s degree DeSue obtained from Harvard Business School, which she was told was funded by BHA, is being investigated.
“It was a matter of time before all of these lies and scandals caught up with him. He’s reaping what he sows,” said Alicia DeSue, who said a divorce is in progress. “I don’t say that from a scorned wife’s point of view, but from a taxpayer’s point of view and morality point of view.”
Wenston DeSue and West did not return phone calls seeking comment by deadline Thursday.
Board members react
Housing Authority Chairman Napolean Mills said he wants to review employee policies, particularly those created by DeSue before a new director is hired. In the past, the board would approve resolutions without seeing the language of the policies, including a “performance-based bonus” system that lacked performance definitions, and ended up being an across-the-board 10 percent bonus for employees this year, as well as allowing workers to cash out sick time.
Gerber, who served 22 years on the BHA Board, many as chairwoman, absolved herself of responsibility.
“In 15 years, I never heard from HUD. HUD never called me and said, ‘Do you know you’re paying your executive director more than what we really approve.’ They didn’t call me and say, ‘Do you know your budget is in deficit,'” she said.
When asked if she was concerned board members can be held responsible for negligence, Gerber responded: “We’re volunteers.”
“HUD is the official agency. They ought to be working with the board. I like to hold HUD accountable. Where were they in 19 years? I don’t even know what they look like,” Gerber said. “Shouldn’t they have advised us a little bit?”
Gerber wants more direction from the city as well.
“We only had one time where we had the liaison from the city council come to our meeting. We didn’t say they shouldn’t come. We’d love to have them come,” Gerber said. “We’re not a closed society. We deal with who’s here, and we have no problem with that.”
City councilmen Gene Brown and Harold Byrd attended Thursday’s meeting along with City Clerk and Treasurer Carl Callahan.
Brown, city housing authority liaison, said he will now attend the meetings on a consistent basis. “These meetings have been sporadic since I’ve been the liaison,” he said. “I’m still trying to find out what, as a council member, I can do. HUD has all the authority on this board.”
Byrd said he will also attend more board meetings because all BHA units are in his district.
“I will be more involved in those efforts, to help bring the confidence level back to where it should be,” Byrd said.
Ultimately, he said, the BHA Board is responsible for overseeing the executive director, but the staff had to know something was not right.
“Someone was writing checks and approving the expenditures. It goes beyond being afraid of keeping your job when it relates to things that are that far out of line,” Byrd said.
Housing authorities are boards created by municipalities and states as local governing bodies to implement the spending of federal funding approved for low-income housing.
HUD’s Office of Inspector General routinely issues an Integrity Bulletin to housing authorities intended to be shared with authority board members. Two bulletins were issued during the course of the DeSue/West investigation that covered how to avoid embezzlement of public housing funds and how to prevent fraud, which includes steps to take when hiring a new executive director.
“After identifying or uncovering embezzlement, it is not uncommon to hear statements like ‘I can’t believe it, he was our most trusted employee’ or ‘It’s not possible, she has a nice family and a good reputation in the community,'” the embezzlement bulletin reads.
OIG recommends housing authority employees attend ethics training regularly, issue memos to promote honesty and adopt a risk management policy as well as rotating the certified public accountant firm at least every three years.
Board members also received a handbook authored by the National Association of Housing Development Officials that tells board members that HUD field offices only periodically monitors authorities for housing safety, following regulations and laws, managing federal funds and also advises commissioners they can be sued individually for failing to take action.
JANUARY 19, 2014
Sen. Grassley requests HUD to supply expense records of Bradenton Housing Authority
BRADENTON — Veteran U.S. Sen. Charles “Chuck” Grassley of Iowa is diving deeper into the troubled Bradenton Housing Authority, requesting records from the Department of Housing and Urban Development about the local agency’s performance.
Grassley sent a three-page letter to Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan last week expressing concern about how an agency rated as a HUD high performer for its financial management could be in a deficit, coupled with generous employee benefit policies.
Grassley, citing the Bradenton Herald’s coverage and the agency’s personnel manual, is requesting six years of documents that were seized from the housing authority when federal agents raided a meeting in September, along with other spending records. Executive Director Wenston DeSue and his girlfriend, Special Projects Manager Stephany West, were escorted off housing authority property and subsequently fired by the authority.
“I’ve looked at dozens of housing authorities around the country, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one that gives a car or $10,000 check to employees on retirement,” Grassley told the Herald. “Every housing authority has to account for how it spends taxpayer money to fulfill its mission of providing safe, affordable, decent housing to people in need. HUD needs to hold housing authorities, including this one, accountable.”
Grassley, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is taking housing agencies to task across the country for
financial and management problems. He’s calling for an investigation into the Raleigh (N.C.) Housing Authority after the executive director there, making $280,000 a year, took up to 20 comp days a year to attend conventions to practice magic tricks, according to the Herald’s sister publication, News & Observer.
Grassley also blasted the Tampa Housing Authority last year for spending $860,000 on travel and training since 2009 and for the $214,000 salary of its director, Jerome Ryan.
In Bradenton, DeSue’s and West’s excessive bonus pay and trips to Jamaica and Busch Gardens are under scrutiny. Grassley is also questioning the take-home vehicle policy where five of seven employees have take-home vehicles. HUD has asked DeSue and West to respond about their trips during company time, and the letter sent to the two in December is one of the last steps in the investigation before an indictment could be issued.
The BHA employee handbook, Grassley wrote, granted cars for both business and personal issue, providing a fuel credit card for each driver. Employees are required to arrange for routine vehicle servicing through the Development Director and must clean the car every other week at a designated car wash.
Also, if employees worked 15 or more years, the employees can keep the car when they retire or quit. If the employee didn’t want the take-home car, they could take $10,000 instead, and if the car was leased, the housing authority would “immediately pay the lease in full.”
“Interestingly, the policy places no limit on the value of the vehicle or the lease to be paid off,” Grassley wrote.
Undoing the damage
The Bradenton agency’s board members, along with interim Executive Director Darcy Branch, say they have been working to address many of the senator’s questions before Grassley became aware of the situations.
“I think the problems he’s raising are problems we’re already addressing,” Branch said Friday. “And we’re going to have them in order in the next 60 days, and hopefully everything will be of his approval.”
Branch did not have records immediately available to respond to the Herald because the agency’s offices are closed Fridays (employees work 40 hours Monday through Thursday). But she did provide some insight and information about the benefits Grassley questioned.
The car-or-cash perk was approved in February 2012, according to the authority’s personnel manual, and based on meeting minutes and management memos obtained by the Herald, the policy was most likely written by DeSue without the board’s knowledge. No employee took advantage of that retirement policy, Branch said.
Minutes and agendas from January and February do not mention the policy, which went into effect Feb. 15, 2012.
DeSue would often use his management memos addressed to the board before meetings as minutes as well. According to his Feb. 12, 2012, memo, he wrote that the BHA would start a new vehicle policy that would allow the agency to lease cars instead of purchase them, and would trade in cars and use a cash balance toward a lease payment, turning a four-year unlimited mile lease to a two-year lease, according to the memo.
The agenda from January 2012 lacks any detail of what was discussed, simply listing “Call To Order, Roll Call, Consent Agenda, New Business, Commissioners Reports and Adjournment.”
The board has given direction to Branch and its newly appointed attorney, Ric Gilmore, to update the personnel manual and procurement policy, revamp job descriptions and adjust salaries before a new executive director is hired.
DeSue left the agency initially with a deficit of about $400,000, but the authority expects to have a deficit less than $300,000 when the fiscal year ends March 31, Branch said. That deficit will be paid for out of reserve funds, she said.
Branch has already suspended the bonus policies and sick leave withdrawal that allowed employees to accrue sick time and cash it out for thousands of dollars. She said Friday she is not sure if she has the power to suspend the retirement policy and will have to ask the agency’s attorney. Gilmore did not respond to messages seeking comment by deadline.
The company cars, often used to inspect housing authority properties, are necessary for workers to take home “because they’re not safe at the housing authority,” Branch said.
City Councilman Gene Brown, liaison to the housing authority, welcomes the senator’s inquiries as the city figures out what it can and can’t do to help its local agency.
“I welcome anything to make things better,” Brown said.
Request for information
Here’s what else Grassley is requesting with a response no later than Jan. 31:
• A copy of the former BHA executive director’s most recent employment contract.
• Total amount of salary and compensation paid to the former executive director.
• Complete annual compensation payments to all BHA employees, including salaries, bonuses, longevity awards and cashed out sick time any other compensation (health care, retirement, take-home vehicle).
• The total number and description of BHA take-home vehicles. The number of BHA vehicles or $10,000 payments given as a retirement/separation benefit, as well as whether the housing authority paid off the vehicle lease.
• The total number of fuel and other credit cards authorized by BHA, along with the names of each employee provided with a fuel or other credit card, and the monthly fuel charges paid by BHA.
• In addition to every Friday, documentation of every weekday (both full and half) per year that the BHA has been closed and for what reason.
• A list all legal bills and professional service and consulting fees paid by BHA, including all vehicle service bills.
• All financial disclosure forms completed by BHA employees and document any Conflict of Interest waivers filed by the BHA and Board of Commissioners with HUD.
• All travel records for employees at BHA and BHA board members.
New documents obtained by the Herald show that DeSue was going to implement a pay freeze on cost-of-living raises, bonus pay and decrease in employee sick and vacation draws, according to a management memo from February 2012, because the freezes would reduce an agency shortfall to $22,000.
When DeSue was fired the following year, he was still receiving bonuses and made $171,060 when he was terminated.
HUD officials seized DeSue’s and West’s personnel files and contract, travel records, and some of the information is inaccessible, Branch said, but HUD did send a copy of DeSue’s contract to the agency.
HUD “had what looked like a motor home behind our office and it was a base camp for them,” Branch said about the raid.
The total salary and benefit amounts, credit card info, car work history and total days the agency was closed was something that would have to be researched, Branch said.
The agency’s employees did work throughout December in 2013, Branch said, where in years past the agency was closed for about two weeks for Christmas break and still collected rent from residents.
As for the credit card questions by Grassley, some employees have purchase cards for Office Depot, Walmart, Home Depot and a fuel card, but Branch said she would have to retrieve statements to supply Grassley and HUD.
When it comes to the car maintenance, Branch believes that only basic maintenance like oil changes were performed on the agency’s cars since 2008. She said she would need to research records for any other charges to see if employees followed DeSue’s stringent car wash policy.
Board members, who are unpaid, have not traveled anywhere since 2008, Branch said, and she isn’t aware if any board member since 2008 filed a conflict of interest waiver with HUD.
The Herald has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with HUD’s Office of Inspector General for DeSue’s and West’s records seized and is awaiting a response of its inquiries.
JANUARY 29, 2014
U.S. Sen. Grassley calls out Bradenton Housing Authority on Senate floor
WASHINGTON — The rest of America could become more familiar with the Bradenton Housing Authority — at least for CSPAN viewers.
Sen. Charles “Chuck” Grassley called out the local agency in a speech Tuesday on the Senate floor, which aired on CSPAN 2.
Grassley, R-Iowa, has found a niche as a watchdog over housing authorities and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expenses, and Bradenton was prominently featured in his speech, naming it one of the “most egregious examples of how ineffective Department of Housing and Urban Development has been at policing local house authorities.”
“Bradenton, Florida, is an area of the country that was hit extremely hard during the foreclosure crisis. But employees at the Bradenton Housing Authority only have to work four days a week,” Grassley said. “They get two weeks off at Christmas, bonuses in June and December, and the option to cash out up to a month of sick leave twice per year.
“They get free use of a car purchased by the housing authority,” he continued. “After 15 years of employment, they get to keep the car when they leave, or take $10,000 instead. It’s their choice. Those are generous fringe benefits.”
Grassley expressed the same concerns in a January letter to Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan.
Many issues Grassley raised are being worked on. Acting interim Director Darcy Branch said the car-or-cash retirement benefit was not acted on and will be eliminated.
“Over the weekend, I took the personnel policy handbook home and city and Manatee County policies, read through them and am revamping our policies and procedures manual in February,” Branch said. “That policy is redacted.”
Bradenton Housing Authority commissioners would have to approve the new manual, she said. The authority is scheduled to meet at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 20 at the BHA office, 2002 Martin Luther King Ave. E.
BHA bonus and sick time policies were suspended last year after the commission fired previous Executive Director Wenston DeSue and his girlfriend, special projects manager Stephany West. The two are being questioned by HUD about trips to Jamaica, Busch Gardens and other destinations while on company time. No charges have been filed.
The authority also eliminated the Christmas break, and staff worked regular hours in December, Branch said. BHA and city employees work 40 hours from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a four-day work week.
As for BHA-owned cars, seven employees use the vehicles to inspect housing authority properties and workers must take them home because the housing authority doesn’t have enough security to watch over the cars, Branch has said.
Grassley’s comments were couched under the claim HUD hands out $4 billion in federal money to local housing agencies to help the poor, but much of the money is spent on high salaries and perks.
“There are a lot of people who make a nice profit from the poverty of others,” Grassley said. “And the Obama administration has been helping a number of these profiteers while the poor suffer.”
DeSue, hired by the authority in 2006, left making $171,060 for an agency with 249 public housing units, which is considered small by HUD standards. His father, William DeSue, the previous executive director, was paid a $25,000 consultant fee to train his son in 2006.
Bradenton’s problems, however, almost seem mild compared with other troubled housing authorities.
The Atlanta Housing Authority has at least 22 employees who earn between $150,000 and $303,000 annually, Grassley said.
Tampa Housing Authority is paying $800,000 in salary and benefits for a public relations department while paying another employee $170,369 as a public relations consultant after the authority moved into a $7 million administrative office, he added.
The Harris County, Texas, authority is accused of having more than $1.7 million in excessive payroll expenses, spent $190,000 on statues, $14,500 on a helicopter, chartered bus and golf cart rental for a grand opening and $18,000 for letters written by Abraham Lincoln, Grassley said.
Grassley is also pushing to make salary data for executives more readily available.
“The Department is still not making this salary data public in a reasonable time frame,” he said. “For example, the Obama administration refused to release the 2010 set of data for almost a year. I hope we don’t have to wait a year to get the new data.”
Grassley said federal funding is capped for executive salaries at $155,500 per employee, and while local funding can be used to create a higher salary, often what happens is housing authorities use accounting magic to get around the limit or claim salary over the limit comes from local funds.
Bradenton Housing Authority is in the midst of a salary survey to see how much employees as well as the next executive director should make. Results are expected in March.
FEBRUARY 21, 2014
Bradenton Housing Authority to negotiate contract with interim director
BRADENTON — The Bradenton Housing Authority will start contract negotiations to hire Darcy Branch as its permanent director while commissioners weigh whether to launch a national search.
Commissioners Napoleon Mills, Rigo Rivera and Lois Gerber voted in favor of starting negotiations. Commissioner Jahna Leinhauser resigned from the board and previous resident commissioner Gilbert Jones no longer attends meetings because he moved out of housing authority property.
The board is planning a workshop Tuesday morning to start negotiations with Branch. A search for a new director would probably begin near or at the end the end of negotiations with Branch, but hasn’t been formally approved by the board.
Rivera urged against a search because of cost and concern that the search would take longer than three months, but Mills disagreed.
“I don’t know who’s out there. I don’t know if someone’s out there that’s better certified than Darcy,” Mills said. “The reason that I don’t know is because nobody has told me. The only way I can find out is to do a search to find out.”
A search is important, Mills added, to prove to the community that the board is doing due diligence and regain public trust — especially after doing two searches in the past and going against recommendations by selecting people with ties to the agency.
“The community doesn’t have that trust in us anymore by doing that,” Mills said. “In order to dispel that, we have to let them know that we’ve done that (search).”
Gerber disagreed, saying such a search is just a public relations campaign.
“I have yet to see people in this community, a national search turning up anything that is solving any problems except nobody can criticize them for who they hired because it was a national search,” Gerber said. “I don’t understand why we have to go through the motions of a PR campaign to do what we know is best.”
Branch, who wants to retain her $121,680 salary, reaffirmed her belief that she can run the authority.
“I’ve been here 18 years, and I understand the meaning of a national search and transparency,” she said. “I don’t see how you’re going to find anyone else in a national search that knows this housing authority better than I do and can run it better than me.”
The negotiation sessions would lay out terms of the contract, and the contract would have to be voted in open session at a future meeting, housing authority attorney Ric Gilmore said.
The board also formally voted down a form contract previously proposed by Branch. The board again discussed, during a third meeting, whether to provide a contract to Branch as interim though she is already serving as the interim director.
Gilmore had to remind the board again that it’s not wise to offer an interim contract.
“If you hired her for a year and narrow it down that you find out you want to hire somebody else, two months down the road, I’m not sure what that does for Darcy,” Gilmore said. If the board chooses to do a national search, it takes two to three months, he said.
The negotiations start as the board is still waiting on a salary study to show what employees at the housing authority, including the finance director and executive director, should make. That report is expected to be available in March, when the board also is set to approve its budget for fiscal year 2015.
Former Executive Director Wenston DeSue was fired in September by the authority following a federal raid of the authority’s offices. DeSue has not been charged with any wrong- doing.
Personnel manual approved
In other action, the housing authority approved revamping its personnel policy manual that eliminated several costly perks.
Gilmore said at the meeting he was concerned that someone might be able to take advantage of the retirement policy by the next meeting where someone could take their work car with them or $10,000 cash. But Branch said no one is scheduled to retire, and the board’s approval negated that concern.
Among the polices changed include eliminating an attendance policy that contradicted personal leave policies, restricting use of take-home cars and gas cards, decreasing vacation and sick time accrual and eliminating the cash out of sick time.
The changes result in a 30 percent salary cut for employees, Branch said.
FEBRUARY 25, 2014
HUD discovered Bradenton Housing Authority’s issues year before raid
BRADENTON — Federal authorities were aware of Bradenton Housing Authority’s troubles at least a year before agents raided the agency’s offices in September 2013, according to a letter released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The details are found in a letter from Dominique McCoy, HUD’s general deputy assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental relations, in response to inquiries from Sen. Charles “Chuck” Grassley, R-Iowa, concerning the Bradenton Housing Authority’s performance under former Executive Director Wenston DeSue. Grassley has added the BHA to his list of several troubled agencies he’s found across the nation highlighting issues with HUD’s oversight and spending.
McCoy wrote to Grassley on Feb. 18 that the Office of Public and Indian Housing, a division of the HUD, has “been concerned about a number of the issues mentioned in your letter about BHA for some time” and in 2012 referred the matter to the Office of Inspector General for HUD. Yet, the agency was considered a high performer with HUD during that time.
The new details have BHA officials wondering why they weren’t alerted by HUD sooner.
Public and Indian Housing officials from Miami came to Bradenton in June 2012 to do a records review of the housing authority, interim Executive Director Darcy Branch said.
Public and Indian Housing officials asked for audits, budgets, payroll, travel and attendance records and five years of accounts payable information, she said, which ended up being confiscated when agents raided the authority in September 2013. Those records fall in line with a letter HUD sent in December to the housing authority questioning DeSue’s and special project director Stephany West’s work hours, having worked less than 40 hours a week and wondering why they were going to Busch Gardens and Jamaica on company time.
The BHA fired DeSue and West in September. No charges have been filed.
“Evidently they found something in that interview and turned it over to OIG,” Branch said. “We never heard a word until Sept. 19 when they came in. They never spoke to the board.”
From what Branch said she understood about the visit, it was not a regular annual review as it was the first time she witnessed an onsite visit of that magnitude, followed by PIH officials interviewing DeSue. A HUD spokeswoman was unable to answer questions about the review by deadline Monday.
When told about the review, BHA Commission Chairman Napoleon Mills said it was the first time he was aware of PIH coming to the BHA office for a review. DeSue never disclosed a review happened, let alone the contents of it, he said, but neither did PIH.
“I think two things should have happened. PIH should have made contact or sent a memo out to the board,” Mills said. “And Wenston should have brought it to us to have a discussion to know exactly what they were looking for and what they received and where we should go forward.”
Branch acknowledged if PIH had alerted the BHA Board about its findings, it could have affected the ongoing investigation.
“There has to be an investigation and has to be some sort of fact-finding mission,” Branch said. “If that was made public, then of course he would have stopped what he was doing.”
While the investigation continues, Mills is still discovering what went on at the housing authority during DeSue’s tenure.
“There’s still things that are coming up that I just feel terrible about,” he said. “I don’t like being left out of the loop. We need to know what’s going on, and then we need to decide where we go from this point.”
Among other inquiries, McCoy told Grassley that PIH will provide more review, oversight, training and assistance for the BHA this year. Branch and board members Mills and Rigo Rivera attended a four-hour training by OIG this month with more to come, Branch said. Board member Lois Gerber was absent from the training, she said.
FEBRUARY 26, 2014
Bradenton Housing Authority commissioner concerned about negotiations with director
BRADENTON — As Bradenton Housing Authority commissioners laid the groundwork for a contract for interim director Darcy Branch, one commissioner raised concerns that his colleagues might be skipping a few steps.
“I think we’re going too fast with this to get things done and go back to our old ways of doing things,” Commissioner Charlie Grace said as the board learned of its options for a proposed one-year contract for Branch during a workshop Tuesday in lieu of a search.
Grace, who was absent from Thursday’s meeting, was concerned after learning at the workshop that the board had voted to begin negotiations with Branch for an one-year contract and had decided not to do a search until the 11th month of her contract when they could opt to hire her for another year.
The board met Tuesday morning to learn of its options in a pre-negotiation workshop before chairman Napoleon Mills and Branch would work on the contract details to bring before the board at its March 20 meeting. Commissioner Rigo Rivera was absent from the workshop.
“I don’t think we should commit ourselves to a certain person now, especially with the way the people are looking at this organization and say we just picked the closest one again,” Grace said.
Grace was surprised to hear from his colleagues that the commission agreed to put off a search until after Branch has been with the agency for 11 months as director.
Attorney Ric Gilmore encouraged Grace to check the minutes to see what happened at Thursday’s meeting.
However, while the board discussed the option of postponing a search after negotiating with Branch, the board’s motion only included starting contract negotiations with Branch for the executive director position. It did not exclude a national search.
Mills dissented in that vote while commissioners Lois Gerber and Rivera voted in favor. Mills said after the meeting he would have to look at the minutes and listen to the recording as well to figure out exactly what course the commission set up for itself, but it doesn’t change his mind for needing a search.
“We need to see who’s out there to be the ongoing director for the housing authority,” Mills said.
Grace also said he might take up the suggestion by Commissioner Lois Gerber that he could make a motion at the next meeting to approve a contract only after a search is done.
The form contract proposed a one-year term with another renewable one-year term, but that could also be changed in negotiations and the board can request a change.
City Councilman Gene Brown, liaison to the housing authority, was concerned that the board had its work out of order because the salary study now won’t be available to the board until the week after the March 20 meeting where the contract could be approved.
“We’re doing a contract and we don’t even know what salary to contract for,” Brown said. “Because there’s been no salary survey, it’s kind of the cart before the horse. It’s nothing against Darcy, but how do you negotiate the salary before you know what the salary should be?”
Brown also cautioned sbout community reaction if the board approved the contract and finds out later that the salary was not in line.
“The national eyes are on us as we know,” Brown said. “We don’t want to do anything wrong, and we don’t want to disrespect any staff members that are here. We’ve got to go forward.”
Mills said at the next meeting the board should have a discussion about the proposed salary and a range. Gerber said she’s willing to wait.
“I will not vote for a contract until the salary search has been done,” Gerber said. “Even if she comes in for $30,000, I won’t even do it until we see what the search is.”
Brown added he hopes that all five board members will be at the next meeting to make a decision after absences at previous meetings. Norma Dunwoody is expected to be appointed by the mayor at tonight’s City Council meeting to serve as the resident housing authority commissioner bringing the board back to five members.
Grace reiterated his support for a national search before extending a contract to Branch or someone else.
“I have nothing against Darcy,” Grace said. “I think she’s marvelous, but I think we need to find the best one. She’s most likely the best one, but I’d like to know that we have more than one candidate, and she’s the best of one candidate. I don’t think she’d want that either.”
Gerber would be open to doing a search, but would like to keep Branch for at least a year or two. Branch said she does not have a resume prepared but will work on providing one to give to the Herald to offer an overview of her work history.
“Maybe we do need to do a search,” Gerber said. “I don’t know, but in the meantime we do need to have an executive director.”
By next meeting, the board should have an employment contract, hashing out details including incidental travel for a work-issued car, performance evaluations, goal setting for the director and a termination clause.
MARCH 21, 2014
Bradenton Housing Authority OKs agreement with interim executive director
BRADENTON — The Bradenton Housing Authority Commission continues to slowly find its way back to recovery, as it passed a new budget and approved a stop-gap agreement for its interim executive director Thursday.
As the commissioners grapple with who they want to lead the housing agency, board members made a series of moves to set themselves up for the next few months.
The board unanimously approved an agreement for interim director Darcy Branch to continue in her role month to month until the board decides who it wants to lead the agency. The move was somewhat unnecessary as the board already appointed Branch as its interim in September, but it gave Branch written assurance she could return to her previous role as financial director.
“I’ll be here as an interim as long as you need me until a permanent director is hired,” Branch told the commissioners. Branch said the idea of the agreement came up in discussions with attorney Ric Gilmore after sensing that all board members were not comfortable with a one-year contract.
Branch will continue to be paid her $121,680 salary, according to the agreement.
To get to that point, the board had to rescind a vote from the previous meeting to enter negotiations with Branch for a one-year contract. Discussion quickly moved to solidifying a national search for a new director.
Commissioner Charlie Grace and new commissioner Norma Dunwoody insisted on a national search being done sooner than later. The board unanimously voted to begin a national search following the review of the salary study and setting a salary range for the new director. The study is expected to be received Monday or Tuesday, Branch said, and a special workshop will be scheduled to discuss the salary study. The study reviewed salaries of housing authorities of similar size in Florida and the Southeast, she said
Dunwoody, sworn in at Thursday’s meeting, told the commissioners that the community thinks the board has “sugar-coated” the process and believes the commission doesn’t intend to do a national search, or at least, will do one later.
“If you keep putting if off later, they’re not going to forget,” said Dunwoody, the commission’s first resident commissioner in three years. “They’re not. We need to get busy and get that national search in place.”
Dunwoody continued to say that residents feel “shafted” about what’s been going on at the housing authority, promises made, and on a larger scale, some decisions by city government.
“They wanted everything and everybody gone. That was the general feeling,” she said. “More than half of them are saying, ‘Oh, they’re not going to do anything. It’s just going to be the same as before.’ That’s what I mean by shafted.”
Commissioner Rigo Rivera said it’s hard to make the community, board and authority happy and wants to hear more from residents at meetings to hear specific concerns. He was visibly upset about the characterization that the commission “shafted” the community.
“I’ve been here for five years and this is the first time I heard ‘shafted,”’ Rivera said, pushing away from the table.
For the first time since 2007, the Housing Authority’s capital budget funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development will be spent on housing rather than administrative salaries.
The housing authority on Thursday unanimously approved its fiscal 2015 budget, which begins April 1. The budget contains $1.5 million in operating expenses, with $821,200 contributed by HUD. The authority is projected to have $436,738 in operating reserves by the end of fiscal 2015, well above HUD’s $329,963 cash reserve requirement. The fiscal 2014 budget was nearly $1.9 million.
HUD announced this week that the Bradenton Housing Authority will be allocated $328,614 for capital improvements. The money will be used primarily for repairing roofs in Sugg development and for a new lock system for the apartments, according to budget documents.
The fiscal 2015 budget includes $519,251 for salaries. Four employees were making more than $100,000 when former director Wenston DeSue and special projects director Stephany West were employed by the authority. The two were fired in September following a raid of the authority’s offices. No charges have been filed against DeSue and West.
Now, Branch and development director Lance Clayton, who makes $110,594, are the lone employees making more than $100,000. In February, the board approved changes to its personnel policy to remove excessive bonuses and sick-time cashouts used under the previous administration that placed the authority in a deficit before DeSue’s and West’s dismissals.
Salaries could be changed or phased in when employees leave and new ones are hired, following the authority’s salary study.