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Final report sears Housing Authority

St. Petersburg Housing Authority officials had thought a sharply critical earlier federal report would be softened.

By JAMES HARPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Federal auditors' completed report on the St. Petersburg Housing Authority confirms almost all of the harsh criticisms leveled against the agency earlier this spring.

After reviewing comments from authority officials, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development auditors still say the authority:

Misused hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mismanaged its rental voucher program so badly that nearly 200 poor families needlessly went without help in 1999.

Awarded millions of dollars in contracts through questionable bidding practices and without proper documentation or controls.

The only finding that was significantly toned down from the preliminary report dealt with spending from a trust fund meant to support Rogall Congregate, a wing of the Graham-Rogall complex for elderly and disabled residents.

The authority found proper documentation for about half of the $558,262 at Rogall that auditors had questioned and said it was working on the rest. The auditors said that should cover it, but urged HUD officials in Washington to follow up and make sure.

Authority board members, who are appointed by Mayor David Fischer and approved by the City Council, had criticized the St. Petersburg Times for publicizing the preliminary report last month, predicting that its findings would be toned down after authority officials had a chance to respond.

Executive Director Darrell J. Irions made similar predictions.

As it turned out, the final report remained the same with only a few small changes in wording.

The authority received the report Thursday afternoon and released it at the close of business hours.

Irions promised to comment later, but could not be reached Thursday evening.

"I've got no problems with it. I don't think it's that big of a deal," he said as one of his assistants handed over the report.

HUD ordered the audit after receiving complaints about the Housing Authority's bidding practices. The auditors later expanded their review into other areas and were in St. Petersburg for seven months.

The auditors, from HUD's Inspector General's Office, said they found "significant (management) weaknesses in all areas reviewed."

At a news conference last month, Irions downplayed that language. The auditors told him it was "boilerplate" that is put in all their reports, he said.

But several other recent inspector general's reports, available on HUD's Web site website, do not contain the same language.

Irions characterized the audit as a routine "management tool."

In fact, the audit was one of only nine investigative reports issued by the Inspector General's Office for all of Florida's housing agencies during the past 21/2 years.

According to the report, Irions and his staff generally accepted the auditors' findings. Their main dispute was with a finding that described "favoritism" in the awarding of contracts.

In the final report, the auditors changed the wording to say that the authority's bidding practices had an "appearance of favoritism." But their criticisms remained the same, and they continued to say that the authority "hindered competition" -- despite the authority's objections.

The auditors also criticized the authority for paying contractors without properly monitoring their performance.

With his board members' blessing, Irions for several years has pursued a strategy of firing or laying off staff and contracting their jobs out to private firms. Some of those contracts, such as the privatization of property management and computer services, were among those that HUD criticized.

At the same time, the auditors said high employee turnover contributed to many of the authority's problems.

The authority said it had taken steps to improve its bidding practices. The auditors agreed that if those steps are "timely and fully implemented," the situation should improve. But it recommended that HUD officials keep a close watch.

In another section of the report, auditors said the authority promised to correct an improper accounting system after a critical 1992 HUD audit but never did. The system remained in place for another seven years, allowing at least $410,000 of public housing money to be misspent. The authority has since repaid the money; the report doesn't say from where.

The auditors also acknowledged some improvements in the authority's rental voucher program, known as Section 8, but said those improvements remain incomplete and should be monitored.

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