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."
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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 DeSues 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.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095.