Grand jury flays housing agency

The Miami-Dade grand jury issued a report Friday calling the county's Housing Agency "an utter and complete disaster," and condemning what it called "cronyism, corruption" and "gross mismanagement."

The jurors commended The Miami Herald for its series House of Lies, an investigation that found the Housing Agency had awarded millions of dollars to developers who over a period of years had failed to build any affordable homes. The investigation also found that Housing Agency officials misused taxpayer money and diverted $5 million to pay for a new headquarters, complete with a $287,000 statue.

"As jurors, we, too, were disgusted and embarrassed by the misfeasance and gross mismanagement of many of our public servants," the grand jury wrote.

The report, titled House of Lies: Built on Mismanagement and Cronyism, said that some Housing Agency employees "seemed more interested in greasing their friends' palms by funding inept, nonperforming entities than being concerned with the goals of assisting our neediest citizens."

The jurors also said that they had intended to ask county officials to fire all of the top management of the Housing Agency. But County Manager George Burgess, after reading just half of The Miami Herald's series, removed seven Housing Agency officials last week.

Burgess said Friday he had mounted a national search for a new director for the troubled agency and expected more staff changes. Several Housing Agency programs have already been moved to other departments.

A CHANCE TO CLEANSE

"We just move forward and we fix the problems," he said.

"Quite frankly I think it's an opportunity to make it better than it was, an opportunity to just cleanse."

The grand jury noted that an agency program for helping low-income families afford their first home was also rife with problems. The program provides buyers who have obtained a mortgage for 80 percent of the cost of a home to finance the remaining 20 percent at a cheaper, subsidized rate.

"Senior administrators within the Miami-Dade Housing Agency routinely approved mortgage loan applications for ineligible homeowners who either made too much money to qualify or were not first-time home buyers," the report said.

SENSE OF OUTRAGE

Miami-Dade Police Department's office of public corruption, the State Attorney's Office and the county's inspector general are all investigating the Housing Agency.

"The outrage and frustration that the grand jury expressed over cronyism is something I think everybody in the community feels," said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle.

The term of the current grand jury, which began nine months ago, is over. But Fernández Rundle said her office would help the next grand jury continue to look into management problems in the Housing Agency. She also said her office was moving forward with the criminal investigation.

Inspector General Chris Mazzella said he expected to issue a report in the next two weeks.

"That report will focus on a significant program and should impact many other programs in the Housing Agency," he said Friday. "Every day, we find something new."