BRADENTON -- A Miami lawyer who pleaded guilty of looting money from an affordable housing developer is causing concern for the Bradenton Housing Authority.
Miami lawyer Lynn Washington, 55, once known as an advocate for low-income residents and a legal expert in affordable housing in South Florida, is expected to be sentenced in coming weeks after he pleaded guilty to stealing more than $520,000 from New Urban Development, an affiliate of the Urban League of Greater Miami. He was charged with first-degree grand theft.
Washington was also an attorney advising the Bradenton Housing Authority on its federally funded housing project
Bradenton Village until 2007. But former BHA Executive Director Wenston DeSue led the board to believe Washington was also legal counsel for the authority on all matters, as late as August 2012, documents show.
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Washington was the development attorney for its HOPE VI project and with Holland & Knight from 1999 to 2007, said Darcy Branch, BHA interim executive director. Washington left the firm in 2007 to start his own firm in Miami, and Branch contends the Bradenton Housing Authority did not pay Washington's firm for any legal work.
BHA budget audits show legal expenses were paid, but are not clear to whom. The fiscal 2013 budget shows $9,924 paid, $6,616 was paid in 2012, and $12,985 in 2011. No legal expenses were budgeted in 2010, according to the authority's budget.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has not requested any documents about Washington's role at BHA and the authority did not volunteer any information to HUD about Washington, Branch said.
The charges against Washington, she said, came as a surprise.
"I was shocked," Branch said.
The authority plans to discuss Washington's case at its January meeting, after the board Thursday was presented recent Miami Herald articles to be placed into the record.
To initiate an investigation into Washington's relationship with the Bradenton Housing Authority or the Bradenton Village developer Telesis Corp., either the housing authority or Mayor Wayne Poston would have to contact the Bradenton Police Department asking for a probe to be referred to the State's Attorney Office.
Poston said Thursday he was not aware of the report on Washington's wrongdoings in Miami, and had no plans to file a report.
"The only responsibility I have is to name the board members and I'm done," Poston said. "I'm getting assigned responsibility I don't have."
City councilmen Gene Brown and Harold Byrd said the city should conduct any investigation within its power. Brown is the housing authority's city liaison, and the authority is in Byrd's Ward 5.
"We should investigate every avenue that we can to make sure everything is in working order," Brown said.
Added Byrd: "I would say any time you have a situation like that, you would look into all dealings the person had."
Byrd suggested the city hold a workshop to discuss ways to improve dealings with the housing authority so the residents do not suffer.
Brown also said the city should work with authority board members.
"I think there are some structural things they need to work through," Brown said. "When you misuse funds, it hurts the residents."
Under the Miami plea deal, Washington must come up with the first restitution payment of $100,000 by Jan. 7. If he cannot make the payment, a Miami-Dade judge will send him to prison for five years.
If Washington, who voluntarily resigned from the legal profession because of the misconduct, pays back chunks at regular intervals, his prison time will be reduced. If he pays it all back within several months, Miami-Dade prosecutors will allow him to remain under house arrest for two years with three more years on probation.
Washington would also have to complete 1,000 hours of community service.
"He has had, over the past 20 years, one of the best reputations in the community. It was a shock, to say the least, that Lynn was involved in the missing money," said Miami lawyer H.T. Smith, who is suing Washington on behalf of New Urban Development. "We're extremely hopeful that Lynn will be in a position to pay the money back."
Washington, representing himself, could not be reached for comment by the Miami Herald.
The arrest and guilty plea were a stunning close to the legal career of Washington, who was well known for his work on behalf of the poor in need of housing.
Napolean Mills, chairman of the Bradenton Housing Authority Board, voiced his shock Thursday.
"I guess I look for the best in people anyway, but I know that people are people and things will happen," Mills said. "You can't go out and do everything you personally want to because of who you are. You have to be cognizant of what you're all about and what the people out there think of you."
As recently as last year, DeSue led housing authority members to believe Washington was the general counsel, including when a former board member asked in August 2012 about a procurement process for the authority, according to emails obtained by the Herald.
But board members never got to talk to Washington, as DeSue would always act as the go-between, Mills said.
"It was my understanding if we needed counsel, then we would need to contact Lynn, but what we would do is go through Wenston to get that done," Mills said. "And then Wenston would go through Lynn to bring our counsel in, but prior to that, Wenston would make a contact with Lynn and talk to get information and bring that back. We would never hear from him."
At the September meeting the BHA Board fired DeSue and special projects manager Stephany West, it hired attorney Ric Gilmore as interim counsel on recommendation by HUD. The authority plans to discuss hiring a permanent attorney at its January meeting, Branch said.
Mills said it's critical that the authority has a "direct line" of communication with its attorney, as well as with HUD officials in Miami and Washington.
Lois Gerber, a longtime board member, said she never got to speak to Washington either. At some point, however, she said Washington attended some meetings because the authority wanted to change the management of Bradenton Village.
"He wasn't here that often," Gerber said.
According to the Miami Herald, Washington also represented local and national developers looking to redevelop blighted parts of South Florida, and he served as legal counsel for many nonprofit organizations. Washington also found a niche representing lottery winners.
Washington had served as the president of Legal Services of Greater Miami, and was a founding member of 100 Black Men of America, a well-known local mentoring group for at-risk youths. And he served as a board member for the Family Christian Association of America, and was a member of the Orange Bowl Committee.
He became a lawyer in 1982, working for the Internal Revenue Service and later as a federal prosecutor.
In early 2013, Washington was representing New Urban Development, which receives mostly federal money to help fund real estate projects in the county's urban core.
Oliver Gross, the head of the organization, did not return repeated calls for comment. The group's website claims it has some 1,200 affordable housing units under development, "with hundreds more planned for construction or redevelopment in the coming years."
In early 2012, Washington was entrusted with keeping more than $520,000 in a trust account to be disbursed to the organization as needed. But according to its lawsuit, when the organization began asking for the money, Washington stonewalled.
"Over the course of several months, Washington provided confusing and disjointed responses, always promising N.U.D. to provide a better explanation or that payment of the due amount would be made at some future date," according to the lawsuit.
Washington "ultimately had no real explanation" as to why he could not hand over the money. The lawyer withdrew the money from the trust account "without consent nor authority," the lawsuit alleged.
Exactly why Washington stole the money, and what he spent it on, remains a mystery. The lawsuit does not detail where the money was intended to be spent.
New Urban Development filed the lawsuit in September. Prosecutors charged him last month, and Washington quickly pleaded guilty.
Janey Tate, Bradenton Herald reporter, and David Ovalle, Miami Herald crime reporter, contributed to this report.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.