BRADENTON -- Has the Bradenton Housing Authority done enough to regain the public's trust and bring the focus back to the residents who depend on the agency for a place to live, since a scandal rocked the troubled agency a year ago?
All of the agency's board, except for chairman Napoleon Mills, declined to comment.
Mills said the agency's future isn't yet determined and said he places his hopes in the current national search for a new executive director, who could be hired by October.
Mills acknowledged it was an important question to answer for the public, but his focus is currently on at the task at hand, which he said is hiring the right person "with trust, high moral values and organizational transparency."
Interim Executive Director Darcy Branch claims to have those qualities and added that new leadership isn't needed. Branch applied for the position, but was originally turned down for an interview. Branch, who revealed that she was the whistleblower who led to federal agents raiding the agency last year, said she believes she has been retaliated against by hostile board members who have come under intense media scrutiny for their lack of oversight during former executive director Wenston DeSue's leadership.
Threatening a lawsuit if she didn't get an opportunity to at least tell the board why she deserves the job, board members recanted their decision and Branch will be interviewed with six other candidates Oct. 6.
Branch has battled the board every step of the way during its search for a new executive director, saying now isn't the time to bring in a high-salaried executive just as the agency is beginning to see some recovery from a $530,000 loss under DeSue in 2013 alone.
"This whole process is taking the focus off of the residents," Branch said. "We finally have a surplus that can be put toward leaky roofs, which we haven't been able to do in five years, but the board feels it's more important to hire someone else and spend $200,000 on another salary."
Branch has offered to continue as executive director and finance director without accepting any pay other than her finance director salary of about $120,000 per year.
"I really don't think they have a finger on the pulse of what is going on," Branch said. "It's like talking to deaf ears when I constantly say, 'Please don't spend anymore money,' and they never talk to me about day-to-day operations. The only thing they talk to me about is, 'What are we going to say to the press?'"
A year after the raid, no formal charges have been filed in the case.
On Sept. 19, 2013, agents from the FBI and the Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General entered the Bradenton Housing Authority's offices, seized documents and removed DeSue and his girlfriend, Stephany West, the housing authority's projects director, from the premises.
A week later, DeSue and West were officially terminated and a short time later, HUD issued a Limited Denial of Participation in HUD-related programs, ensuring that DeSue could not return to his position while he remains under investigation.
When DeSue appealed the order, HUD released several documents that detail allegations of his possible wrongdoing.
The HUD documents show DeSue and West had billed the housing authority for hours not worked. Those allegations of claiming to be at work include days the couple spent in Jamaica, two trips to Busch Gardens and multiple instances of coming to work late and leaving early.
West, in particular, "routinely worked less than 40 hours a week," according to documents. HUD claims West often arrived late and left early and was absent from work "on many occasions during the day when you should have been on leave status." HUD cited several dates as "mere examples" of multiple occasions when this occurred.
In addition, HUD said DeSue allowed West to be paid for hours not worked.
The investigation into DeSue's activities began much sooner than the 2013 raid. Branch said she actually began reporting DeSue's and West's habits to HUD in 2010, "after two years of begging them to stop. We had so many massive arguments that this is wrong, this is fraud. They just didn't stop."
In 2012, representatives from the Public and Indian Housing Division at HUD arrived in Bradenton to review BHA records, a fact DeSue reportedly hid from the board. But the results of that review were sent to the HUD OIG office and prompted an investigation using information supplied by Branch, who continued to work with the investigator. That investigation lasted a year before the raid finally occurred and now it has been another year since the raid.
Frustration in the community continues over the perceived lack of progress in the case. One person familiar with the slow-but-steady grind of federal investigations said patience is required.
"Federal investigations can take time, often longer than the public might want to see," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who has called for more oversight of public housing authorities. "It's important for HUD to investigate allegations of wrongdoing but in my experience, HUD hasn't performed enough oversight of local housing authorities to prevent the problems in the first place."
That lack of HUD oversight may be changing, at least in the case of the BHA.
Already in trouble?
The $5,500 expenditure to hire a consultant, plans to reimburse expenses for six candidates for the executive director's position, and the potential of paying an executive director's salary in the estimated range of $140,000 year are things that Branch said can't be overlooked.
Besides taking money away from much-needed capital improvement projects that Branch claims will dry up the current $200,000 surplus she wanted to use toward roof repairs, she said there exists the possibility that HUD won't approve the expenditures being put toward hiring a new executive director.
"HUD allows smaller housing authorities to use all of their capital-improvement funding for whatever is needed," said Branch. "Unfortunately, that's how DeSue financed all of his expenses, bonuses and travels that left us in debt. I've been told by the Miami field office that they are no longer going to allow us to use our capital-improvement funding for anything other than capital-improvement projects."
The Bradenton Herald was unable to confirm that information, but Branch said the only surplus funding going into the 2014-15 fiscal year is in capital improvements.
"The only way we can budget any money toward a new executive-director salary is through that fund," she said. "The money will have to come from somewhere."
Branch said DeSue's removal changed the atmosphere at the housing authority, but the environment has shifted again. Staff members are uncertain of their employment futures, and the feud between Branch and the board festers. No one has publicly accepted responsibility for what DeSue was allegedly allowed to do.
Board members Lois Gerber and Rigo Rivera have continually denied any responsibility for DeSue's actions, saying they had no way to know despite approving everything DeSue put in front of them. Mills has acknowledged that a lesson has been learned and it's time to move forward, but neither Mills nor board member Charlie Grace has publicly acknowledged that mistakes were made.
In the meantime, the residents -- men, women and children -- relying on public housing for a place to call home, await what will come next.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.