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Trial hears testimony on rat named Big Ben

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


TAMPA -- A longtime Tampa Housing Authority resident testified in federal court Wednesday that conditions in her College Hill apartment were so bad in the mid-1990s that her unit was inhabited by a huge rat she called Big Ben.

Juno Davis, 45, who lived in College Hill's public housing from 1992 to 1999, said the 18-inch-long rat was "a frequent visitor" who came and went from her apartment through gaping holes in the walls that no one would fix.

"I said I was going to call some higher-up people because Big Ben was getting on my nerves," Davis testified. "Then (Tampa Mayor) Sandy Freedman came out, and Ben was still under there in the cupboard when she got there."

Davis was called to testify to highlight the deteriorated condition of Tampa's public housing stock at a time when Housing Authority boss Audley Evans was certifying to the U.S. government that all units were safe and sanitary.

Federal prosecutors rested their case Wednesday against Evans, the executive director at the authority from 1988 to 1996, and co-defendants Dr. Patrick Watson and C. Hayward Chapman. The three are charged in a 125-count indictment with bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and making false statements.

Prosecutors say the three "subverted the bidding process" at the Housing Authority and misappropriated $4.5-million in federal funds by paying kickbacks to Evans for lucrative construction contracts.

Evans is charged with making a false statement to the government by signing a form sent to HUD in June 1996 certifying that 100 percent of the Tampa Housing Authority's units met federal housing quality standards.

Federal auditors found just the opposite. An audit covering the period from April 1995 through October 1997 concluded that many authority apartments were in deplorable condition.

A HUD inspector from Atlanta looked at 46 units, including Davis' unit, and gave each a failing score for housing quality standards. The inspector noted a total of 533 violations, an average of 12 per unit.

At the apartment infested by Big Ben, federal inspector Carlos Lopez testified Wednesday that he found cracks in doors and walls, an inoperable electrical outlet, peeling paint in a bedroom, exposed electrical wires from a light fixture and stairway railings in disrepair.

Contacted by the St. Petersburg Times Wednesday, Freedman said she did not recall the particular incident involving the oversized rodent in College Hill. But she did remember being shocked at the poor condition of the subsidized apartments rented by the Housing Authority.

"There's no question the conditions were abominable," Freedman said. "It was like a third-world country out there.

"Audley Evans was always saying everything was wonderful-wonderful, but I kept saying it wasn't wonderful-wonderful."

Evans' attorney, Arnold Levine, argued Wednesday that the false-statement charge concerning housing standard certification should be dismissed because no evidence was submitted showing Evans knew units were in substandard condition.

Attorneys for Watson, a Tampa physician, and Chapman, a local developer, also asked the judge Wednesday for a directed verdict of acquittal on all charges, saying the government's case rested solely on circumstantial evidence.

U.S. District Judge James S. Moody considered several legal arguments and is expected to rule on the defense motions today.

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