Audit missed housing problems
By DAN DeWITT
BROOKSVILLE -- A recent federal audit of the Brooksville Housing Authority produced some stunning revelations:
The authority's managers tampered with tenant waiting lists; they violated competitive bidding policy; they paid themselves generously for extra work with little or no documentation it had been performed.
Even more shocking than what the federal review found is what it missed -- particularly the handling of $470,000 in federal grant money earmarked for the renovation of apartment complexes the authority manages in Brooksville, several sources say.
Housing Authority executive director Betty Trent and her son, maintenance supervisor Larry Trent, used the money to hire uninsured and unlicensed contractors, most of them friends or acquaintances of the Trents, documents and interviews reveal.
The authority provided materials for some of these contractors, and Larry Trent or his crew members performed tasks covered in the contracts -- often on Housing Authority time -- meaning the public essentially paid twice for the work, said Dan Smith, an authority employee from February to December of 2001.
The grants also paid for postrenovation cleanups, and much of that work was done by relatives of Betty Trent and the authority's project manager, Joe Ann Bennett, according to payroll records.
Larry Trent pocketed money from the sale of scrap metal and old appliances taken from the authority's apartments during the renovation, former employees said.
Trent also pressure-washed and painted a home for one Housing Authority board member and cut down trees in the yard of another; he and one of his crew members renovated the interior of Bennett's house.
Trent said those were side jobs done on his own time and with his own equipment. But former employees say he used Housing Authority tools, that the paint and other materials applied in Bennett's house were bought with grant money, and that one authority employee, George Kendall, spent several afternoons on the clock working on Bennett's house.
One board member, Carl Pilcher, said he favors terminating Bennett and the Trents, based on information he has already heard -- including reports of work done on Bennett's house and Larry Trent's employment application. Trent indicated he had never been convicted of a felony, while court records show he has been convicted of two counts of burglary and two counts of grand theft.
"I'm ready to fire the whole lot of them at this point," Pilcher said.
'What did they do' with the money?
Pilcher also said the pattern that is emerging -- of management reaping benefits from money intended to improve housing units -- warrants a broader investigation.
"I'm going to get HUD involved in this if I have to drive to Jacksonville to do it," Pilcher said, referring to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's regional office.
HUD's earlier review, which had a relatively limited scope, and which was previously reported by the Times, is continuing, said Karen Jackson Sims, of the department's Tampa office.
"In the meantime, if we are given more information with written documentation that the Housing Authority has violated a federal law or regulations we will look into it," she said.
Other board members think no more scrutiny is needed.
"I don't think you can dig up any dirt on (Betty Trent)," said John Frazier, the board member who hired Larry Trent, at a cost of $60, to cut down two trees on his property.
"I think Mrs. Trent is outstanding as far as managing that housing development."
Bennett and the Trents say they may have been careless about keeping books and screening contractors, but so was a consultant hired to supervise the renovation, Paul Tanner of Jacksonville.
Betty Trent added that neither of the former employees making the accusations is credible: Kendall left the authority after testing positive for marijuana use, and Smith has felony convictions that include habitually driving with a suspended license and fleeing and eluding law enforcement officers. He spent two months of his 10-month stint at the authority in the Hernando County Jail.
But the main argument in Betty Trent's defense is the same one offered by supporters such as Frazier: the recent transformation of Hillside Estates.
Three years ago, the apartments there were dilapidated inside and out. The grounds were littered with trash and the streets crowded with drug dealers. Hillside Estates is now clean and safe, Betty Trent said, and most of the units are in sound condition, largely because of her son's hard work.
"It seems like every time you try to do something good, somebody wants to come slap you on the wrist," she said.
But, just as important as what has been done, some residents said, is what hasn't been -- or what hasn't been done right.
After nearly a half-million dollars of work, the interiors of fewer than half of the apartments have been renovated. Some of the soffits, replaced a little more than a year ago, are already drooping under the eaves. The exterior painting is sloppy, even according to Tanner, who was partly responsible for inspecting it.
"That's ridiculous," he said, looking at blobs of dried paint on the porches and stray brush strokes on the aluminum window frames.
On a recent evening, Paticia Fagin, 25, cooked chicken for herself and her children in a kitchen with stained tile and rust-flecked door jambs.
"There's so much stuff here that needs to get done, and it never gets done," Fagin said.
"If there was so much money coming in, what did they do with it?"
Friends and family
The Brooksville Housing Authority has a long history of management problems.
"The performance of the BHA's Public Housing Program is less than adequate," a 1999 HUD report stated.
"Many of the findings and concerns identified in this report are repeated from previous . . . management reviews that span six years."
The managers have never been sanctioned, though, partly because some board members are reluctant to challenge them, several people interviewed said. Also, questions about Trent's and Bennett's performances -- including poor record-keeping and high vacancy rates -- focused more on their ability than their integrity.
Then the federal grant money for the rehabilitation project at Hillside Estates arrived.
The first grant was awarded in 2000, and the money became available in early 2001. The authority has since received $470,000 and is in line to receive another $225,152 this year.
Betty Trent used grant money to help supplement the salaries of her son, who received $15,500 in payments for extra work in 2001, and Bennett, who was paid $23,800. Most of this money, she later said, was a loan, and she is now paying it back.
The grant money allowed the authority to buy materials, including nearly $40,000 worth from Home Depot in 2001, and to hire Tanner, whose two-year contract pays him $36,000. It paid the salaries of renovation workers such as Smith, as well as a cleanup crew that included Betty Trent's sister, Linda Mullins, and Mullins' daughter, as well as Bennett's daughter and son-in-law.
"There was one point, I swear, when I was the only one who was not related to somebody else," Smith said.
"I know how it looks," Betty Trent said. But the family members were good workers, she said, "and the truth is, it is so hard to get somebody to do something and do a good job."
The contractors she hired also tended to be people either she or her son had known for years.
Pasha Darby, who works at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center, won the painting job. Darby said Larry Trent first mentioned it to him at a bar that hosts the pool league they play in. Darby's uncle, Patrick -- an employee of Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative -- was hired to wire the apartments for new electric stoves.
The name of Fred Shearer, a nursery owner who was paid $5,500 to plant palms and hedges at Hillside, is listed as Larry Trent's employer on Trent's 1995 job application with the authority.
When Les Mullins, the aluminum contractor, was hired to do $26,000 worth of aluminum work in May 2001, he was the brother-in-law of Trent's sister, Linda Mullins. Mullins has since divorced Les Mullins' brother, Larry, according to court records.
That contract was awarded though the authority received two bids rather than the three its policy requires, according to the HUD review. Betty Trent and Tanner told federal inspectors they mistakenly thought the threshold for such requirements was $30,000, when it is actually $25,000.
Trent also said she was out of town when Tanner awarded Mullins the bid, but that Mullins received no special consideration or inside information.
He happened to be visiting his brother, Larry Mullins, and noticed the ad for the job in the newspaper, Betty Trent said.
"Larry (Mullins) just told him him where to put in the bid."
Unlicensed, unpermitted and uninsured
But Les Mullins actually had some big advantages over his competitors; so did the other contractors.
The contractors that should have had professional licenses for their work -- including Mullins and Patrick Darby -- did not have them, according to state records. None of the contractors had county occupational licenses. Some of the work required building permits to be pulled, said Jim Friedrichs, the county's supervisor of contractor licensing; none were.
The contractors also failed to provide the Housing Authority with proof of worker's compensation or liability insurance, which HUD requires.
The department can cut the Housing Authority's funding for hiring unqualified, uninsured contractors, according to its policy. Friedrichs said the county can levy steep fines for unlicensed or unpermitted work.
Larry Trent blames the lack of documentation mostly on Tanner, who he said didn't tell him licenses were needed for all of the jobs and urged him to do the work quickly and cheaply. Tanner's response was that Betty Trent bears ultimate responsibility for screening contractors, though he acknowledges his role in allowing Les Mullins to slide.
"He showed me he had a license in North Carolina, and he showed where he had submitted for a license in Florida," Tanner said.
He said there is good reason authorities require these documents, especially in a trade such as electricity, where shoddy work can lead to a fire or serious injury. If that were to happen at Hillside Estates, he said, the Housing Authority could be held liable.
"If you're hiring somebody to do wiring, they better be a licensed contractor," Tanner said.
One more thing about licenses and insurance, said Marshall Maeder, owner of Hernando Aluminum, which bid unsuccessfully for work at Hillside Estates: They are expensive, costing contractors thousands of dollars annually -- costs that are reflected in bids.
"I had to send them the workman's comp and general liability, and they turn around and give it to that guy?" Maeder said.
"That's probably why I didn't get the job. . . . I can't believe (Betty Trent) did that. That lady there needs to lose her job."
A helping hand
Some of the contractors got even more assistance from the Housing Authority: labor and materials, which defies both the terms of some of the contracts and standard trade practices, said Tanner and others.
Records show the Housing Authority bought nearly $2,500 worth of the exterior paint used on the Hillside apartments. The authority always intended to buy its own paint, in an effort to save money, and informed contractors of that from the start, Larry Trent said.
The contract with Pasha Darby, however, specifies the authority will provide paint "for trim work only." And that is the recollection of Wayne Vutech, owner of Archer Painting in Brooksville, the second-lowest bidder.
"I remember calling around for them, trying to find a medium-grade construction paint that would hold up for them," said Vutech, who added that painters expect to provide materials for their work.
So do electricians, said Tony Langone, co-owner of A&L Electric, who wired several apartments at Hillside Estates for new electric stoves for between $185 and $245 each.
"Whenever we did any work for them, we provided the materials," he said.
Patrick Darby didn't.
Records show the authority spent $4,900 at City Electric in Brooksville in October 2001, the same month Darby signed a contract to wire 90 apartments at Hillside for $150 apiece. (Authority records are unclear about whether he received the entire amount.)
Larry Trent acknowledged buying the materials and also that he eventually did much of the work himself. Smith said he worked alongside Trent, often on Housing Authority time, but refused to do the worst part of the job -- crawling through blown fiberglass insulation to lay the wires above the ceilings while wearing a mask, goggles and gloves.
Trent said he took on that unpleasant task because "I wanted to better myself for Mr. Tanner. I was trying to show him there wasn't too much I couldn't do."
Tanner said he was not aware that an electrical contractor had been hired. He also said he didn't know the Housing Authority had supplied Darby's paint.
Tanner was asked why Trent did work a contractor had been hired to do.
"I have no idea," Tanner said. "I have no idea."
Smith say he has an idea why. "He (Trent) has be getting a cut," Smith said.
A clearer indication of possible payments from a contractor to Housing Authority employees came from another job, one that was not part of the renovation effort, Smith said.
A general contractor named R.M. Collins received $21,500 to restore the interior of a fire-damaged apartment at the authority's other complex at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Hale Avenue.
In fact, other than the plumbing and windows, "I did all of it" as a side job, Smith said.
Just as he was finishing the work, his jail term began. After his release, he said, he asked Larry Trent for the $3,000 he had been promised.
"He told me that the contractor needed a bigger cut," Smith said.
Larry Trent said he and Smith cleaned out the apartment on their own time and were paid by Collins, who could not be reached for comment. Neither Collins nor Darby paid them any money back, the Trents and Bennett said.
"Dan Smith is a liar," Larry Trent said. "I didn't get a dime."
Patrick Darby's response was less decisive.
"I'm not going to answer that one way or another," he said, when asked if he had paid Larry Trent.
"I know you're loving that, but as far as that other stuff goes, none of it ever happened," he said, before ordering a Times reporter to leave his property.
'A sad day in America'
If Kendall and Smith never directly witnessed any payments to the authority's managers, they said, they saw plenty of other dishonest activity.
Kendall said he remembers pulling supplies from the Housing Authority's storerooms to use at Bennett's house. And, though he and Larry Trent began working there over a weekend, the job stretched into the next several workweeks.
"A lot of times I'd go over there at 1 o'clock (p.m.) and stay till 5 or 6 (p.m.)" said Kendall. He said he split the $1,200 that Bennett paid to thoroughly refurbish the inside of her home -- including new tiles, paint and texturing on the walls and a popcorn finish on the ceilings.
Bennett, who remembers the cost as $1,400, said she supplied all of the materials, though she could not provide the receipts to prove it.
Larry Trent, likewise, was unable to provide receipts for his own chain saw, which he said he used to remove the trees from Frazier's home, or the pressure washer with which he cleaned a house owned by the mother of the board's chairwoman, Helen Fleming.
That's because the saw and pressure washer belonged to the authority, as did many other pieces of equipment Trent routinely borrowed, Smith and Kendall said.
Trent stockpiled scrap metal in shopping baskets in vacant apartments, they said, and kept the money he received for them. Betty Trent said the money went to the Housing Authority, and produced receipts she said proved it.
The receipts showed, however, that the money was paid to Larry Trent, not the Housing Authority. And Dave Stubstad, the manager of Schulnburg Recycling, said that when Trent brought in scrap it was always credited to him.
"I don't even have an account for the Brooksville Housing Authority," Stubstad said.
Smith said he was let go after challenging the Trents over two refrigerators, taken from Housing Authority apartments, that he says Trent sold to Emergency Appliance in Brooksville.
Lee Hart, the son of the dealer's owner, remembers Trent bringing them by and saying "basically, that the Housing Authority told him he could do whatever he wanted with them."
Larry Trent said Lee Hart wasn't in the store at the time. Betty Trent said the refrigerators were taken there for repair and showed the invoice proving the authority had paid for the work. She also repeated that Smith could not be believed.
"Dan Smith is very bitter," Betty Trent said. "And a felon."
But despite his record, Smith said, he has more credibility than either the Trents or Bennett, which is a reflection of the current, chaotic state of the Housing Authority, he said.
"It's a sad day in America," he said, "when Dan Smith is the voice of reason."
-- Dan DeWitt covers the city of Brooksville, politics and the environment. He can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111