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.
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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.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.