Jefferson Housing Authority audit upheld

A federal audit that ripped the Jefferson Parish Housing Authority for questionable financial practices has been upheld by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and now the authority is facing a nearly $700,000 bill if it can’t prove its spending was justified.

HUD Public Housing Director Cheryl Williams notified the authority’s director, Pamela Watson, that her agency had until March 31 to prove that the spending flagged by HUD’s inspector general in August was aboveboard, or the authority would be required to repay those funds. In addition, Williams notified the authority of several “corrective actions” that must be taken to make certain that HUD policies are followed in the future. Federal officials had made it clear for weeks that HUD was likely to affirm the audit’s findings, but an official response had been delayed.

Williams’ letter affirms the audit’s findings that the authority: made more than $89,000 in improper payments to attorney Wayne Mancuso; improperly spent more than $100,000 on payments for commissioners; improperly spent more than $81,000 on a contract with Paragon Accounting; improperly spent more than $240,000 on security services from four Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputies; and improperly paid state Rep. Girod Jackson III’s company Diversified Ventures more than $90,000.

The letter requires the authority to prove that all of those payments and several others were justified under HUD’s guidelines or provide a refund to the federal agency. It also requires the authority to adopt new internal guidelines that comply with federal rules regarding conflicts of interest, commissioner expenses, bids for professional services and inventory control.

HUD’s letter comes as some Jefferson Parish officials continue to push for a shake up at the housing authority, and Parish President John Young continues his own investigation into the authority. In fact, Young said on Tuesday that his office is forwarding information to the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office about possible violations of state law at the authority.

“It appears that the housing authority may have violated the Open Meetings Law when they had the meeting to choose the new director,” Young said.

Watson was chosen as the agency’s new director in November.

Young also said he’s continued his push to have former director Barry Bordelon fired from his new position as a maintenance director at the authority. Bordelon resigned shortly after the audit but was rehired by his former assistant.

Young said he believes the Bordelon issue will be addressed at the board’s next meeting. Young added that he continues to meet with commissioners to discuss their actions during Bordelon’s tenure to determine if any removals need to occur.

“We’re committed to making sure the housing authority from this point forward is run properly,” Young said.

But Councilman Mark Spears, who has long cautioned against a rush to judgment before HUD made its determination, said the letter does not clear things up. Spears noted that the letter gives the housing authority until March to provide documentation proving its expenditures were justified. Consequently, drawing conclusions now would be premature.

“Before anything is done, before comments are made, before the parish does anything, allow the housing authority to make the documentation available,” Spears said.

Spears has often questioned the parish’s focus on the authority, and on Tuesday he questioned some of the recommendations made by HUD. He noted that HUD has requested that the authority establish a formal agreement with the Sheriff’s Office to provide security but said that agreement has been in place since April.

According to the cooperative endeavor agreement, the housing authority has a four-year contract with the Sheriff’s Office to provide security at the Acre Road subdivision as part of the Sheriff’s Office’s public assignment program.

“Some of this stuff has been done,” Spears said, although it was unclear how the authority would document those payments that occurred prior to April. “That should not have made its way into this report.”