BRADENTON -- As the Bradenton Housing Authority prepares Thursday to narrow a field of seven candidates to lead the troubled agency, a candidate eliminated from last week's top 12 new executive director applicants is threatening legal action.
Interim Executive Director Darcy Branch is the whistleblower whose revelations led to a September 2013 raid of the BHA by federal authorities, which ended the eight-year leadership of Wenston DeSue, now under investigation for financial mismanagement.
Charges have yet to be filed against DeSue, but Branch claims it is apparent BHA Board members are retaliating against her for obeying orders from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General investigator to remain quiet during the investigation.
Branch claims bias surfaced and the proof is she was eliminated from even being interviewed for the permanent position.
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"If I don't at least get an interview, I'm going to sue," said Branch. "I think that I'm being retaliated against, and I will sue the board, the consultant and other agencies will be added to the lawsuit. If I don't at least get the interview after the time I have been here and what I've done for this agency, I think it's unfair."
At least two board members, Norma Dunwoody and
Lois Gerber, expressed opposition to Branch well before the national search started. Gerber said Branch should have told the BHA Board about the federal investigation.
"The board wants to point fingers, but it was the board that let all of that slip through its fingers," said Branch. "They need to take responsibility or get off the board because they are making the same mistakes again from when Wenston DeSue was here."
Branch said the HUD order to remain silent and other reasons made it clear: "Going to the board was not an option. They were always on his side and Wenston DeSue fed them with a spoon. Had I went to the board with my initial suspicions, instead of HUD, I have no doubt that he would still be here and I would have been the one fired."
Federal oversight urged
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who has called for more oversight of housing authorities and has tracked BHA developments, warned against retaliation against whistleblowers
"Whistleblowers perform a public service for which we should all be grateful," Grassley told the Bradenton Herald. "The government, with the need to protect tax dollars, ought to understand this best of all and federal, state or local governments should never retaliate against whistleblowers."
After Branch was eliminated from consideration, she approached BHA Board Chairman Napoleon Mills and Gerber to ask if it was true. Branch said Gerber told her she would have an interview and Mills nodded in agreement.
"Mills came back a little while later telling me he had to circle the block before coming back," said Branch. "He told me that I needed to know the truth and that I was out."
Branch said she tried to find out the truth from others involved in the process "and I couldn't get a straight answer."
Courtesy of an interview
Mills did not immediately return a phone call for comment Wednesday. Gerber said Branch not getting an interview must be a misunderstanding even though she did not pick Branch in the selection process.
"I don't know, and maybe I'm wrong, but I assumed because she was the interim director that regardless she would be given the courtesy of an interview," said Gerber. "Her 19 years should stand something, but I will say that she does not meet the minimum requirements."
Dunwoody said she isn't supporting Branch based on a handful of people who have told her Branch was "nasty to them. They were key to me getting on the board and asked me to please not support her."
Dunwoody said she isn't convinced Branch is telling the whole truth about being a whistleblower until she hears it directly from HUD. She said an interview with Branch is irrelevant given her position to not hire her as executive director.
Although Branch was not among the final seven candidates, the board can still change its mind when choosing the final field for interviews.
Branch said she was told by consultant, Simone Gans Barefield of Gans, Gans and Associates of Plant City, the candidates chosen responded with better answers to a question about their accomplishments. Branch said she requested the agency questionnaire go to her personal email, "but it was sent on a Saturday to my business email, so I had one hour during lunch to fill that out while the other candidates had 48 hours. I think that was done on purpose, too."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.