tampabay.com

Ex-housing official pleads guilty

By DAN DEWITT
Published March 1, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - Joe Ann Bennett, the retired program manager of the Brooksville Housing Authority, pleaded guilty Tuesday to a charge of defrauding the federal government of $40,650, money that was intended for refurbishing low-income apartments.

Bennett, indicted by a federal grand jury in November along with Executive Director Betty Trent, had originally faced six charges, including falsifying investigative documents and mail fraud.

Five of those were dropped as part of a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office in Tampa, said Bennett's lawyer, Ellis Faught Jr. of Brandon.

But Bennett must pay the money back to the government and cooperate in the case against Trent, whose trial is scheduled for April, Faught said.

"I think with all federal plea agreements, you aid the government and you get certain benefits if you do that," Faught said.

In 2002, an audit conducted by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and a subsequent story in the St. Petersburg Times found evidence of widespread corruption at the authority.

The authority's documents showed that several contractors had been paid without any proof that work to improve the authority's apartment complexes - Hillside Estates and Summit Villas - had been completed.

The indictment focused on only one contractor, who was not named in the indictment, but who is a close relative of Bennett's, Faught said.

The indictment said documents were created to make it appear as though the contractor was paid for his work for the authority between 2001 and 2003, when most of the money actually went to Bennett and Trent.

"She and Betty Trent brought in a third party, and fabricated some work orders and that work was not done," Faught said. "That's the allegation and that's what she pled to."

Bennett will remain free on bond until the court completes an investigation to help determine what her sentence should be.

The maximum penalty for the charge is five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, Faught said, though Bennett's sentence will likely be less severe because she has no previous criminal record.

Bennett retired in September. Most of the housing authority's board members refrained from criticizing either her or Trent, who was not suspended until it was ordered by HUD about a month after the indictment.

Several board members also said previously that they had seen no proof of widespread corruption at the authority. On Wednesday, two of them were not ready to say whether Bennett's plea had changed their minds - because neither had heard about it.

"It wouldn't change my opinion because I don't know anything about it," said board member Carl Pilcher.

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6116.