Four county housing officials removed
Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess fired two top officials of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency and put two others on administrative leave, promising a more extensive shake-up in the days ahead.

Calling the Miami-Dade Housing Agency a "disgrace" that's cost taxpayers millions, County Manager George Burgess on Tuesday fired two top officials, put a third on administrative leave -- and promised that the sweeping shake-up is far from over.

Burgess' dismissals started Monday, when he put Housing Agency official Emma Duffie on leave pending a disciplinary hearing, the first step toward termination. The firings continued Tuesday, when Tawana Thompson, longtime head of the agency's troubled construction loan program, was escorted from the building. Her two top assistants, Juan Garcia and Maritza Meitzner, also were removed.

The actions came amid an investigative series that began Sunday in The Miami Herald revealing massive mismanagement at the Housing Agency, with millions of dollars paid to developers who have never produced affordable housing.

The series, House of Lies, also found that the agency diverted millions of dollars on insider deals and pet projects -- including the building of a new headquarters complete with a $287,000 bronze sculpture of teacups imported from Italy.

"Our hat's off to you for laying it out there," Burgess told The Miami Herald late Tuesday.

Burgess said he began his own inquiry into the agency several months ago and hired special advisor Cynthia Curry to track the money flowing to affordable housing projects.

Burgess said he has contacted the county inspector general and the public corruption arm of the police department.

Curry spent Tuesday at the Housing Agency ordering the dismissals.

"The kinds of problems we have over there are disgraceful, and we're not going to tolerate it," Burgess said. ``Personnel actions aren't over. There are going to be other individuals that are going to be removed from their jobs."

PROBE ORDERED

The dismissals came one day after Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez called on Burgess' office to investigate practices at the Housing Agency, including a series of advances paid to developers for projects that haven't been built.

In one case, The Miami Herald found, the Housing Agency paid Oscar Rivero's development companies almost $1.6 million between 2002 and 2004 for two affordable housing projects that have never been delivered. Rivero has not returned the money; the county filed suit earlier this month.

Thompson, 49, who oversaw the construction loan program and has worked at the Housing Agency 26 years, told The Miami Herald that former Housing Agency Director Rene Rodriguez ordered controversial payouts to developers.

Thompson could not be reached for comment late Tuesday. Rodriguez, who resigned from the agency in 2004, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Burgess said regardless of who ordered the transfers, money should not have been paid out.

"You have folks that, at a minimum, are exercising bad judgment," he said.

DISMISSED

Meitzner, 52, was also dismissed.

Garcia, 61, and Duffie, 49 -- who ran the agency's failed program that provided land to developers for homes -- were relieved pending disciplinary hearings, which are expected to take place in the next few days. Reached at home Tuesday night, Garcia declined to comment.

Meitzner and Duffie could not be reached for comment. Duffie is married to Alben Duffie, president of the MDHA Development Corp., a nonprofit development company advanced almost $10 million in recent years by the Housing Agency for projects that have not yet been built.

Miami Herald staff writer Evan S. Benn contributed to this report.