Three more ousted in housing shake-up

County Manager George Burgess demanded the resignations of two more top officials at the Miami-Dade Housing Agency on Wednesday, bringing to six the number of administrators ousted in the past three days in what has become the biggest shake-up in decades at the beleaguered agency.

The agency's second-in-command, Rodolfo Perez, was asked to resign, along with finance and administration chief John Topinka. Burgess also demanded the resignation of the Housing Agency's most recent director, Alphonso Brewster, who had been working in the county's budget office since April.

The moves come on the heels of an investigation published this week in The Miami Herald, House of Lies, that found the Housing Agency wasted millions of dollars on failed projects and pet programs while allowing developers to walk off with money for affordable houses that were never built.

Even when houses were built, the newspaper found, some developers bypassed the poor and sold to investors who reaped quick profits.

With the resignations of the two administrators Wednesday, Burgess has removed almost every department head at the Housing Agency and said more changes are coming.

Though Brewster was working in the county budget office, he ran the Housing Agency in recent years and was deputy director under longtime chief Rene Rodriguez when much of the questionable spending took place.

Documents and interviews with agency officials show many of the decisions were made by Rodriguez, who did not return repeated calls from The Miami Herald.

In one case, The Miami Herald found, Rodriguez directed millions of dollars to a private, nonprofit group that he was overseeing as president and chairman, including a $1.5 million advance for an elderly housing project that has never been built.

`CONTRITE'

Burgess said he did not blame Brewster for the spate of poor decisions but said that he was not satisfied with the progress at the agency after Brewster took over in 2004. Brewster resigned in April and moved to the budget office.

Cynthia Curry, special advisor to Burgess, met with Brewster on Wednesday and said the veteran administrator was "contrite."

"[Brewster] acknowledged the breadth of what has been written about in the last several days and he just really felt responsible,'' said Curry, who was brought in earlier this year to track the money flowing to affordable housing projects.

Brewster could not be reached for a comment.

Curry said the county's moves this week are an attempt to "change the culture of the organization."

On Monday, Burgess put Housing Agency official Emma Duffie on leave pending a disciplinary hearing, the first step toward termination. The next day, he fired two other administrators, including Tawana Thompson, head of the agency's troubled construction loan program. A third was put on administrative leave.

Curry said the local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will lend employees to the Housing Agency's depleted staff.

OUTRAGE

The Miami Herald's series has sparked hundreds of e-mails, letters and calls to county officials, many calling for criminal investigations and demands for land and money to be returned. Politicians from Tallahassee to Washington have urged local officials to clean up the agency.

Three South Florida members of the U.S. House of Representatives - Lincoln Díaz-Balart, Mario Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen - sent a letter to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez on Wednesday saying, ``We are deeply saddened and frankly shocked by what we have read. . . . It will be extremely difficult for us to continue calling on our colleagues in Congress to support funding for an agency that appears to be so woefully mismanaged.''

The newspaper found the Housing Agency pledged more than $87 million between 2003-2005 to put up 72 developments for the poor, but about 40 percent of the projects were canceled and others are delayed for months, even years.

To account for the money, Burgess has transferred oversight of the county's affordable housing construction loan program to the finance department, which will examine the projects and propose fixes.

Burgess also said he plans to cancel the building of the Housing Agency's new headquarters in South Miami and is trying to recoup $5 million the agency put towards the project.