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Project a scam, indictment says

The housing was unlivable, but the housing authority chief pocketed $175,278, prosecutors say.

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


TAMPA -- In October 1995, Audley Evans signed two contracts worth $4.58-million for the Tampa Housing Authority to purchase 66 new houses in Palm River. The money was to pay for transitional residences for low-income people moving from public housing projects into their own homes.

The contracts, federal prosecutors now say, were part of a conspiracy by Evans, the housing authority's executive director at the time, and developer C. Hayward Chapman to defraud the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban and Development. In return for these and other contracts with the authority, court papers say, Chapman paid $175,278 to Evans in illegal kickbacks.

Most of the homes in the 66-unit development, called Delaney Creek Estates, have been vacant and boarded up sinced they were built, and the promising project has turned out to be a drain on housing authority resources.

The reason? The Delaney Creek Estates homes built by Chapman's company were built without any back or side doors and were not equipped with air conditioning or heating. The housing authority has been forced to shell out more than $400,000 to fix those flaws, and has finally been able to sell a handful at prices around $65,000 apiece.

"There was no way anyone was going to buy there until we put sliding glass doors on the back and put in central air," said current Tampa Housing Authority Executive Director Jerome Ryans. "Hopefully, we'll get some of our money back out of this. But it hasn't been a real good deal."

Evans, 47, was executive director in Tampa from 1988 to 1996 and was once regarded as a rising star among the nation's public housing administrators. He was named Wednesday in a 92-count federal indictment accusing him of conspiracy, wire fraud, bribery, money laundering, and lying to federal regulators.

The indictments follow by two years an audit by HUD's inspector general that was a blistering denunciation of Evans' administration, blaming him for deteriorating housing conditions, bidding abuses and funneling $1.8-million away from the authority to finance non-profit companies Evans ran.

Chapman, 63, a developer with three decades of building experience in the Tampa area, was charged in 36 counts of the indictment.

Dr. Patrick Watson, a local physician with staff privileges at Tampa General Hospital and St. Joseph's Hospital and who had two companies which did business with the housing authority, was indicted on 32 counts in the bribery-conspiracy scandal.

Evans is expected to return to the United States today from an undisclosed location, turn himself in to the FBI and plead not guilty to all charges, his attorney, Arnold Levine, said. Chapman and Watson entered not guilty pleas Wednesday and were released after posting bails of $100,000.

Levine maintains Evans' actions were wholly with the consent of those sitting on the boards of the housing authority and non-profit companies he headed.

"What the government has done is take some absolutely innocent dealings and transactions and translated them into a multiplicity of charges," said Levine.

Asked about the Delaney Creek Estates contracts Evans put together with Chapman, Levine replied, "He reached out to a friend. The government puts a criminal side on that. We said, "What are friends for?' "

Former members of the housing boards say they had no knowledge of any illegal business ever being brought to them.

"The bottom line is that board members know the information that's given to them," said Marsha Rydberg, an attorney who served on the housing authority during Evans' tenure.

Lanny Sumpter, local owner of several McDonald's restaurants who served on one of Evans' non-profits, said he was caught off guard by this week's indictments.

"Everything I read about Mr. Evans was positive -- the national awards, the innovative programs," said Sumpter. "I don't know how anybody could know something was being paid under the table."

Ryans, who is trying to help the housing authority rebound from the public relations disaster of the indictments, finds it easy to understand that Evans' board members may have been duped.

"Board members only come in for two hours a month, and they only respond to the information the staff gives them," he said. "They can be left in the dark very easily."

In addition to long prison terms and heavy fines if convicted, Evans, Chapman and Watson face possible forfeiture of property the federal government claims was financed with the proceeds of illegal activity.

In Evans' case, prosecutors could seek forfeiture of his $120,000 home in Temple Terrace, and three properties in Hernando County. One was purchased by Evans and his wife for $83,300. A second was bought by Evans' sons, Damion and Darren, and is assessed at $64,086. The third was purchased by Evans and Watson for $52,000.

From Chapman, the government seeks forfeiture of three Caterpillar tractors valued at a total of $281,500, two financial accounts, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a Dodge pickup truck, a 42-acre tract in Gainesville, Ga., and an $84,000 home on Davis Islands.

- Staff writer Larry Dougherty contributed to this report.

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