Kenner Housing Authority board mostly mum on critical audit

Despite a scathing audit detailing serious problems at the Kenner Housing Authority, it’s unclear what action the agency’s Board of Commissioners will take because most of them say they haven’t had time to review the report.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office released an audit Monday citing widespread problems with how the authority handles its finances, including a lack of oversight in how the authority spends money, maintains its housing units and completes financial reports. The audit also noted that the authority’s commissioners once paid a former director more than $143,000 upon his retirement, despite a policy that would have barred it.

Kenner’s Housing Authority is being examined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development because of allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

The authority is on its third executive director in three months after Claudette Raphael resigned in March and Kathy Beard was fired by the commissioners shortly afterwards. Richard Murray is on loan to the authority from the East Baton Rough Parish Housing Authority as an interim executive director.

When reached Tuesday afternoon, Board of Commissioners Chairman Donnie K. Small said several of the problems in the audit predated his tenure, and he hadn’t read the full audit. Small, who is serving his second term on the board, said he was too busy to discuss the issue further.

“I haven’t had a chance to review that document,” Small said.

Vice Chairman Richard Regan could not be reached Tuesday afternoon at his law office. Commissioner Duane Hunt declined to comment and directed all questions to Small.

“We all agreed that we’d speak with one voice … I don’t want to supersede the chairman,” Hunt said.

But commissioners Evelyn Dufrene and Al Morella weren’t shy about discussing what they see as ongoing misconduct from executive directors and the triumvirate of Regan, Hunt and Small. Dufrene, who was appointed to represent tenants at the authority, said since she took office in September, she’s been stymied in every attempt she’s made to get information, she said.

“They don’t like when you’re vocal,” said Dufrene, who said she has been told that minutes from meetings are lost and that she isn’t entitled to certain documents related to the agency’s finances. “As a commissioner, I can’t get my answers.”

Dufrene also said she wrote a letter to Kenner Mayor Michael Yenni last month asking for help in addressing problems at the agency but hasn’t gotten a response. Yenni appoints the authority’s commissioners to five-year terms and can remove them for cause.

Yenni said Tuesday he hasn’t yet had time to review the audit but said he has been troubled by issues at the agency for some time.

Yenni said he sought reviews of the authority’s finances by the state’s inspector general and by HUD. He credited Hunt and Regan for trying to reform the agency, and placed most of the blame for problems at the authority on a string of “incompetent” executive directors.

“I’m the one that asked for this,” Yenni said.

He said he can only appoint commissioners, not control how they perform. Yenni also said he’s had an attorney from his office monitor meetings.

Dufrene said she believes tons of fraud is occurring at the agency, noting Raphael’s resignation and the resignations of several other employees. She said it seems like there is a quid pro quo system among administrators and some commissioners. Dufrene said that before Raphael left, she gave some employees $5,000 raises without the approval of commissioners and despite an anticipated cash crunch with changes in federal financing.

“The things I’ve seen and heard are horrific,” Dufrene said. “It’s a mess. It’s actually a mess.”

Morella, an outspoken fixture at Kenner’s council meetings, said he’s long suspected wrongdoing at the authority but hasn’t been able to get the information he needed to document it. He only learned about the audit when he was contacted by a reporter, but he said wasn’t surprised to learn about the more critical findings.

“I know this, that any time the news media is involved, it can’t be good,” Morella said.

Morella was appointed to the authority in 2010 by Yenni. He said he’s had heated arguments with Small, Regan and Raphael about how the agency was managed. Last year, Morella filed a police complaint against Small after a stand-off at the authority’s offices, and several commissioners asked Yenni to remove Morella from the board, he said.

Morella said he welcomes HUD’s review of the agency and the input of the public and news media. He wasn’t sure what could be done about the payments made to the former director but said he would look into it. He added that he doesn’t care where the money and paper trail leads, he’s going to follow it.

“I’m not going to stop until everyone who’s had their hands in this agency … is held accountable for what they did,” Morella said.

According to the audit, in 2004 the authority paid former director Lawson Harvey $143,555 when he retired based on more than 4,000 hours of accrued leave. That decision came despite an authority policy that capped payments for accrued leave at 300 hours, or about $8,800 for Harvey. Not only did the board at that time vote to ignore its policy, but it also made the payment despite there being no record of how much accrued leave Lawson actually had.

The audit also found that the agency lacked policies regarding purchasing supplies, didn’t keep a record of items purchased and that Raphael previously had the ability to authorize expenditures and balance the authority’s ledgers.

Kenner’s housing authority has been plagued by problems since before to Hurricane Katrina, according to the audit.