The Homestead Housing Authority board met on Wednesday to set a new rule: Missing three meetings is grounds for dismissal for board members.
HHA board member Lois Jones said she stopped attending in 2012 because of what she sees as the board’s unethical behavior. HHA board member Ian Iglesias complained about the meetings being public, and after attending a couple, he stopped going in 2011. The housing authority manages about $20 millions in public money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The board did not immediately kick anyone off.
Meanwhile, the Florida Commission on Ethics announced March 13 that an investigation found probable cause to believe that HHA chairman David Berrones had a conflict when he voted in 2011 to hire his friend Oscar Hentschel, the current HHA director.
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Jones had complained to the ethics commission. Now the commission has to decide whether the law was actually violated and, if so, whether a penalty should be recommended. Berrones will have a chance to request a public hearing.
“They don’t fool me,” Jones said. “I have experience in politics. They are all conflicted ... the state commission is our first line of defense when we have corruption, but they have no subpoena powers. I’m off the commission. I’m not going to those meetings.”
Jones’ mistrust started in 2011, when she asked the board to get a legal opinion on a possible conflict-of-interest and the board voted against it.
Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman is the only one allowed to appoint or dismiss members of the board. Jones is the only HHA board member who is not a Bateman appointee. Miami-Dade Commissioner Lynda Bell, a former Homestead mayor, appointed her. Jones said she worked in Bell’s campaign.
Jones questioned the board’s decision to hire Hentschel, a former international television network executive. A Dec. 6, 2011, letter to HHA board member Audelia Martinez, from a HUD official said 26 candidates submitted resumes; 23 met the basic requirements of 5 or more years of experience working with a public housing authority. Hentschel was not among the 23. But he was hired March 2011.
Jones cried foul again after Berrones supported a $20,000 raise for Hentschel June 1, 2011. Berrones later pushed to bring up Hentschel’s salary to $125,000, arguing the director had renegotiated contracts that had saved the agency $180,000. Hentschel said he hasn’t had a raise in nearly two years.
Jones said she spoke to employees who suspected the HHA leadership was abusing their position to award contracts to their friends. Hentschel said Friday her accusations were “hearsay.” Contracts below $2,000 have phone bids, above $2,000 have written bids and above $10,000 have closed bids, he said.
Berrones said the Florida Commission on Ethics’ ruling doesn’t make sense because the company he started with Hentschel was never really active.
Records show Berrones and Hentschel registered Xcaret Group in Nov. 22, 2010 and dissolved it Sept. 23, 2011.
“There is nothing wrong with us being friends. We had some people from Mexico who wanted to invest in real estate here, but the deal fell through,” Berrones said. “We never profited from that company.”
Berrones has also done business with Bateman, who listed their company Golden Land Holdings in a 2010 county financial disclosure. Berrones, who also donated to Bateman’s campaign, said the mayor is no longer a business associate.
The Berroneses are contractors, real estate investors and are involved in politics. Berrones’ brother is former Homestead councilman Eduardo "Eddie" Berrones, now the CEO of Le Jardin Community Center, a private nonprofit preschool in Homestead that has received HUD funding.
HHA board member Arturo De Leon was married to Berrones’ sister. Martinez was the chief financial officer of Le Jardin Community Center and Hentschel was briefly on Le Jardin’s board of directors.
“I attended a couple of board meetings but I never signed to join the board,” Hentschel said.
Berrones said he is proud of volunteering for HHA and doesn’t plan to resign any time soon.
“We grew up following the harvest from Florida to Michigan. That’s what some of the board members have in common,” Berrones said. “We worked in the farms, put ourselves through college, worked hard to be successful and now we want to help. Look, I now own a $3 million home in Pinecrest.”
The ethics commission also had good news for Hentschel. He had been accused of misusing the agency’s credit cards and vehicle. He was also accused of misusing his position to get better insurance coverage, and to fire a woman who had accused him of sexual harassment. The commission found no probable cause on any of the allegations.
A lawsuit is still pending in the sexual harassment claim. Hentschel said HHA’s insurance is covering the legal fees.