Three weeks after scandal rocked the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, the man in charge of county government stood before an angry crowd of housing advocates and promised a clean sweep.
"We didn't hide it," County Manager George Burgess assured the group on a steamy afternoon in August. ``We reported it to law enforcement. We reported it to our auditors. And that is what we will continue to do."
But the push to rescue the nation's sixth-largest housing agency came too late.
For years, top county leaders received explicit warnings of widespread problems, yet greenlighted controversial proposals and failed to track the flow of cash from an agency flush with public money, The Miami Herald found.
The lapses in oversight occurred at every level -- from the county manager to his top aides to county commissioners -- giving housing administrators an unchecked ability to forge dubious deals and advance millions of dollars to a handful of developers for houses never built. The breakdowns derailed a desperately needed affordable housing program and left thousands of poor families without decent places to live.
A review of hundreds of e-mails, records, calendars, letters, government reports and County Commission resolutions chronicles years of neglect and stalled reforms.
More than two years ago, a former Housing Agency construction manager alerted Burgess in a certified letter to conflicts and misspending at the nonprofit MDHA Development Corp., along with other concerns. Burgess responded by saying he would "cooperate with any governmental or law enforcement agency" but did not press for an inquiry.
For months, no one investigated -- even though the nonprofit raked in millions of tax dollars without delivering the homes it promised.
Complaints during the past three years to the county manager's office, commissioners and others about rampant red tape in the Housing Agency's infill housing program -- which provides government land to developers who build for the poor -- were largely brushed aside without significant fixes. So were warnings about mismanagement of the rent-subsidy program, which last December became the subject of a scathing federal investigation that found exposed wires, leaks and decrepit conditions in housing for the poor.
In the past five years, county commissioners approved numerous building projects for their districts, even showing up for celebrated groundbreaking ceremonies, but failed to call for an investigation into why so many projects were routinely falling behind schedule or dying altogether.
Then-Assistant County Manager Tony Crapp, Burgess and the County Commission approved questionable proposals pitched by the Housing Agency, including spending $5 million on a new Housing Agency headquarters in 2003 -- even though the money came from a fund for the poor.
Nothing was ever built, and the developer for months faced questions about how the public's money was spent, but the county manager only recently called the project off.
"What have we been doing? This needs to get resolved!" Burgess wrote in an e-mail to two of his top staff members in mid-July, just days before The Miami Herald published a four-part investigation exposing a string of botched housing deals, including the delayed office complex.
"We know we are going to firmly deal with [the developer]," Burgess wrote. ``I really don't want to read about the problem we know exists and are addressing in The [Miami] Herald before we take action. I am beginning to think that will happen."
Despite the complaints, the county manager did not order an audit of the Housing Agency's construction records, which showed more than $12 million in payments to developers for houses not delivered. There also was no request for the state attorney's office or the inspector general to investigate, according to the agencies.
To be sure, the problems at the Housing Agency started several years before Burgess became manager in June 2003. His predecessor, Steve Shiver, said he did not suspect anything unusual, adding that in one of the nation's largest counties, problems can escape notice.
"With an organization that large, it's very difficult as a manager to have your hand on all of it," Shiver said.
But the manager is Miami-Dade's top administrator, with wide latitude and a staff to establish checks and balances. In the case of the Housing Agency, questionable deals were struck for years.
Burgess said he responded to the crisis in housing as soon as he discovered problems. He said his assistant county manager, Tony Crapp, did not provide accurate accounts of the workings of the Housing Agency.
"He was basically presenting an everything-is-A-OK scenario," Burgess said. ``I wasn't being presented with there being dire needs in housing."
Crapp said he, too, was kept in the dark: ``I cannot relay what I don't know."
But housing advocates say county leaders should have demanded answers and responded to warnings, particularly because Miami-Dade suffers from one of the nation's most severe affordable-housing shortages.
Said Florida Legal Services attorney Charles Elsesser: ``Everyone in the world knew the Housing Agency was messed up."
Burgess said he began to take serious steps to overhaul the Housing Agency in February -- more than two and a half years after he became county manager.
He reassigned Crapp and hired former Assistant County Manager Cynthia Curry to examine the Housing Agency's operations.
Then, for the first time, Burgess ordered two audits -- one on the troubled MDHA Development Corp., the subject of the complaint in 2004, and the other on the stalled plan to build a new Housing Agency headquarters. While those reviews were under way, Curry started to study the agency's programs, writing recommendations to speed up construction and to stem the flow of money to troubled developers.
But it wasn't until July -- when The Miami Herald began to publish its investigative series -- that Burgess ultimately cleaned house by ousting top managers of the Housing Agency, including the chief of the construction-loan program.
Since then, the county manager has pitched a top-to-bottom overhaul of the agency, called for criminal investigations, conducted a national search for a new director, stationed investigators at the Housing Agency, transferred authority of the construction fund to the county's Finance Department, recommended fines and jail sentences for developers who violate county rules, and pushed for more money for 11 construction projects promising 1,400 houses.
"Would it have been nice to do it sooner?" Burgess said. ``It's triggered by when I'm getting information."
Yet trouble loomed for years with little action from county government.
In recent years, warnings have landed at the manager's door, records show. Others went to the mayor and county commissioners.
March 2004: "We need your help. The INFILL HOUSING PROGRAM is not working," developer Jerry Flick wrote to Burgess and other county leaders, including Commissioners Joe Martinez, Katy Sorenson and Dennis Moss, describing the obstacles that developers face when trying to build affordable homes on government land.
September 2004: "This system sums up a blank check provided by taxpayers," wrote former Housing Agency construction manager Juan Pintado, who had been fired by the county two years earlier. Pintado allegedly threatened a co-worker, although a hearing examiner recommended his reinstatement and his job evaluations were above par.
Pintado wrote to Burgess -- sending a copy of the complaint to Miami-Dade Inspector General Christopher Mazzella and others -- urging an investigation of the nonprofit MDHA Development Corp.
The nonprofit's first president: Rene Rodriguez, who also was head of the Housing Agency.
As the Housing Agency director, Rodriguez ordered a series of payments to the nonprofit, along with loans of county cars, office space, equipment and staff. To date, the nonprofit has completed just one project.
"In plain, everyday language," Pintado said about his complaint, ``I think it ended up as toilet tissue."
March 2005: "Why is it taking so long for me to get into a home? Please help me," teacher's aide Alfreda Martin wrote to Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who forwarded the letter to Burgess. Martin spent three years trying to buy a home through the Housing Agency but never got one.
Now, with prices rising, she's not sure whether she can afford to buy anymore.
May 2005: "I am appalled at the . . . unhelpfulness of agency employees and am sorry that taxpayer monies are being spent in such an inefficient way," landlord Gina Gallagher wrote to Burgess, complaining of delayed Housing Agency payments for families involved in the subsidized-rent program.
Said developer Flick: ``Issues just seemed to fade away."
Mayor Alvarez said he tried for months to track the programs and flow of money at the Housing Agency. He said he demanded a report from then-Assistant County Manager Crapp and Housing Agency officials in July 2005 but never got what he wanted.
Alvarez said he asked Burgess to step in. In recent months, the county released reports about the agency's construction fund, infill housing program and other projects, confirming widespread problems.
"I am just as frustrated as everybody else," said Alvarez, who was elected in 2004. 'I would ask, `What's the problem? Why aren't we building more?' I couldn't get any answers."
County Commissioner Sorenson said she also asked for a status report from the Housing Agency, appealing last year to Crapp and to then- Housing Agency Director Al Brewster. Like Alvarez, she said she finally approached Burgess about the delayed response.
"I kept getting vague answers" from the Housing Agency, she said.
CHANGE OF LEADERSHIP
Burgess said that was precisely what he experienced, too, and responded by transferring Crapp in February and hiring Curry to clean up the agency.
But for more than two years, Crapp served directly under Burgess and oversaw housing even as warnings and complaints landed at County Hall.
Crapp, a 15-year county employee, made few demands of the Housing Agency, according to county employees, developers and housing advocates.
Crapp said he tried but that he was unsuccessful at getting answers from longtime Housing Agency Director Rodriguez, who for several years violated county policy by advancing money to developers -- including his own nonprofit.
"You'd ask for [information] and you'd ask for it again," Crapp said. ``That was the way things went."
Yet, Crapp raved about Rodriguez's performance in a 2004 evaluation, saying Rodriguez provided ``outstanding, visionary leadership."
When Rodriguez retired in 2004, Burgess wrote to county commissioners: "Rene is a nationally recognized leader in the field of affordable housing and has served with great distinction." Burgess even appointed Rodriguez to the search committee responsible for identifying a new Housing Agency director. Burgess ultimately hired an insider -- Rodriguez's longtime deputy, Brewster, whom Burgess removed in April after 18 months on the job.
Part of the problem, community leaders and housing advocates say, was simply that the county manager did not put the Housing Agency in the hands of solid administrators.
Sorenson said she became so concerned about Crapp's leadership that she confronted Burgess.
'I would complain about [Crapp's] performance, and [Burgess] would say, `Oh, you know I think he's doing a good job,"' Sorenson said. ``I think it took a while for [Burgess] to understand why there was a problem."
Said Burgess: ``You don't always have the perfect team overnight."
Critics say Burgess should have raised more questions earlier by calling for audits and regular reviews. Instead, the Housing Agency ordered its own audits by a local accounting firm.
Those audits -- which cost a total of $475,000 from 2003 to 2005 -- said little about the problems brewing inside the agency. One audit declared that the Housing Agency was ``transforming and creating new housing choices and opportunities for Miami-Dade County residents."
In recent interviews, two county commissioners acknowledged that the commission bears some responsibility for the gaps in supervision.
"There's no excuse for something like this to happen," said County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa.
Said Commissioner Barbara Jordan: ``There is plenty of blame to go around. Too many things went wrong."
The breakdowns had an impact on thousands of families, including Martin, the teacher's aide who wrote to the mayor last year.
She has been looking for a house since 1998, when she started to attend self-sufficiency workshops at the Housing Agency and saved $5,000 for a down payment.
She found a $75,000 house promised by a developer participating in the Housing Agency's infill housing program and put down a $1,000 deposit. Three years passed, but the house she reserved was never built.
Martin called legislators, county commissioners, the Housing Agency and a lawyer, and eventually pulled her money out. She is still seeking to buy -- only now with rising prices, she may not be able to afford a house.
"I feel I deserve answers to what went wrong with the Miami-Dade Housing Agency program," wrote Martin, 53.
Four weeks later, then- Housing Agency Director Brewster responded on behalf of the county, sending a four-paragraph letter that advised only that Martin could still participate in the Housing Agency's programs.
The letter said simply: ``I commend you for your efforts to be a part of the American Dream."