Consultant says Jefferson Parish audit findings unfounded

A private consultant told the Jefferson Parish Housing Authority on Wednesday that a rash of controversial findings in a recent audit should be found unjustified once the company presents its review to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development next week.

In a sometimes-contentious meeting, the authority’s board of commissioners was told that most of the problems identified in an audit this summer by the Office of the Inspector General will be satisfied simply by providing more documentation.

Connie Hill, an accountant with Housing Agency Procurement Assistance, told the board that when her company provides its response to HUD next week, she is confident that the authority won’t have to repay nearly $700,000 in expenditures flagged by the federal government.

“This agency clearly acted within the guidelines,” said Hill, whose firm will be paid up to $30,000 to review the agency’s practices. “I looked at this going, ‘This really isn’t anything.’”

Hill’s agency was hired by the authority’s executive director, Pamela Watson, to review records after the audit alleged conflicts of interest and questionable payments by the authority. That audit contributed to the removal of six board members by Parish President John Young, and the resignation of former Director Barry Bordelon.

Several of the board members removed by Young have appealed their removal, and were still officially on the board on Wednesday.

Hill and board Chairman Patrick Pierson focused on the audit’s findings that some commissioners illegally received per diems and other reimbursements. In addition, the audit said the authority’s contract with a company owned by State Rep. Girod Jackson was a potential conflict of interest.

Hill said the funds used for per diems were an allowable expense and noted that state law allows the payment of per diems. In addition, she said, since Jackson did not regulate the authority in any way, working with his company was justified as long as he provided a clear service.

In fact, Hill stressed that all of the authority’s dealings should be judged by whether a “deliverable” was provided at a reasonable rate. As long as that standard is met, the authority is fine by HUD’s rules, she said.

“We don’t see anything that has been deemed an ineligible use of funds,” Hill said.

Commissioner Brian Eiselen asked pointed questions of Hill, particularly about who hired her, when she was hired and her true role. Eiselen and several other commissioners said they were never notified that her company had been hired to provide a response to HUD.

Eiselen noted that five of the board’s commissioners have sued Jefferson Parish over their removal by Young, and he wondered if Hill was really there to help their case.

“It seems like you’re trying to defend the board’s past actions,” he said.

Watson, the authority’s director, said she hired Hill because preparing the response by the March 31 deadline was too much for her to handle along with the day-to-day operations of the authority. She said the outstanding legal issues were outside of her concern.

Pierson and Commissioner Hunley Dufour also challenged Eiselen’s references to the lawsuit, and Pierson even accused Eiselen of being out of the loop by choice.

The commissioners ultimately asked for a chance to review Hill’s final report before she submits it to HUD. The procurement assistance company also is helping the authority develop an overall procurement policy and develop forms to organize its records.

Hill noted that the company has experience assisting housing authorities throughout the country, and she believes a formal practice will help the authority avoid future problems. Commissioners also approved several new procurement and reimbursement policies, although Eiselen questioned whether the board should pass any resolutions given the status of the majority of the board.

Young removed commissioners Terrell Harris, Mary Snowden, Bill Boada, Pierson, Simone Scanio and Dufour. He cited their decision to allow Bordelon to remain in a new position with the authority and their general actions as commissioners. Harris is the only commissioner who did not appeal that removal.

At one point, Pierson apologized to Bordelon for asking him to resign because of political pressure. The board also sought a legal opinion from a D.C.-based firm to justify how its actions were legal.

A hearing on the commissioners’ appeal of their removal will be held next month. Authority attorney Wayne Mancuso said the board was within its rights to pass the resolutions since the removal is not finalized.

Commissioner Lynn Giordano said that it seems like many of the practices Hill is creating would have been helpful before the audit was done.

“Hopefully this will solve the problem moving forward,” Giordano said.