BRADENTON -- As the Bradenton Housing Authority's board of directors gathered Thursday morning to discuss a national search for a new executive director after last year's scandal, the mood was calm with a feeling that the worst was behind them.
The sense of serenity didn't last, as the meeting erupted into a debate about the role of the acting executive director in the scandal and whether she deserved to be hired permanently.
Darcy Branch has been acting executive director since a 2013 federal raid of the BHA's offices, when a criminal investigation of former executive director Wenston DeSue and his girlfriend, former special projects manager Stephany West, for alleged misuse of public funds, became public. That investigation is ongoing.
Branch has been silent on the investigation, but said the Department of Housing and Urban Development officials have allowed her to make a statement.
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"I have been slandered and bad-mouthed for being the financial director under DeSue for supposedly doing nothing," said Branch. "Mr. DeSue and Miss West were under investigation for a year. Investigators didn't come in with blinders on. Everybody here was under investigation. Had not someone said something and reported it, they would still be here."
Branch acknowledged being aware of the investigation before the raid, but she stopped short of taking credit for reporting the alleged criminal activity.
"The fact that I'm still here and was not escorted off the property shows my job was done," she said.
Branch said she understands the pressure the board is under to search for a new executive director, but made a case for choosing her.
"The need for a national search is usually connected when there is someone that is not available to be an effective director," she said. "In this case, you have me, who is more than capable of being an executive director."
Branch said it's her leadership over the past nine months that stopped a sinking ship and put the BHA back on course to the point where, for the first time since 2006, "We have a surplus in funding and can focus on capital projects today, if you wanted."
Hiring a new executive director at a salary range estimated to be between $120,000 and $146,000 would diminish that opportunity, she said.
Branch said she has heard "horror stories" of housing authorities hiring executive directors from the outside that within a couple of years "create utter chaos."
At the heart of her concern is the potential for a new executive director coming into a housing authority under federal scrutiny and firing the existing staff.
Board members were less than impressed.
Lois Gerber, a 22-year board member, said if the board voted on whether to retain Branch, she would likely vote no. Gerber said Branch should have told the board about the investigation, but Branch said she was under threat of prosecution not to discuss it with anyone.
Gerber said something should have been said, even if it was in an anonymous note.
"This is insane," said Gerber. "There was no excuse for what was done, and if we had known what was going on, that man (DeSue) would not have been in the building for another two minutes. I'm blaming the fact that we could not be involved, but we were left to be criticized."
Board Chair Napolean Mills said the DeSue scandal proved there needs to be a mechanism in place for evaluating the executive director. He said it wasn't fair to the staff to have worked in an environment of fear under DeSue.
"That information should have gotten to us," he said.
Branch said it's the general public that has put the board under pressure to find a new executive director, but that local BHA residents support her.
Norma Dunwoody, a resident and board member, disagreed. She said Branch asked her if she would vote for her and said she would not.
"I come from the community involved in this," she said. "The community sent me here and they felt everyone involved in this should be fired."
Dunwoody said she didn't trust Branch.
Board member Charlie Grace placed the blame at a higher level.
"I feel we were set up by HUD," said Grace. "They had all the information and should have at least notified the chair. Apparently they don't trust us at all."
Branch said from the tone of the meeting, it appeared that she and staff would need to begin searching for new jobs, but the board expressed trust in its staff.
The discussion eventually focused on approving an ad in three national housing authority publications. The board agreed to release the ad and scheduled a July 10 meeting to begin reviewing applications.
Branch was told she was invited to apply.
After the meeting, she said, "I'm not sure I will."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.