Bradenton Housing Authority a boon for DeSues; investigation may end that

Herald Staff WritersOctober 6, 2013 

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."

Well-paid employees

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.

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