Miami-Dade County

Housing chief being forced out

With her agency steeped in scandal over questionable housing deals and cronyism, Miami housing director Barbara Gomez is being ousted from her job as one of the most influential power brokers in city government.

The veteran administrator, who had fought to keep her position, is now negotiating her final exit after an avalanche of controversy over the last month stamped out her political support.

While prosecutors pore over records showing that her agency funded millions in questionable deals, City Manager Pete Hernandez is trying to work out the details of a separation package that could allow Gomez to qualify for a pension amounting to $1 million over 25 years.

Pressure had been mounting on Gomez to step down since The Miami Herald began publishing investigative stories early this month about her agency, including revelations that her office provided more than $1 million to companies that employed her ex-husband, Ruben A. Santana -- after his release from federal prison.

In addition, the newspaper found this week that her office funded a social-service agency that employed her son, Ruben Santana Jr., despite a warning from government administrators that the payments violated federal regulations.

Records show that Gomez's office provided thousands of dollars to SABER Inc. while her son worked as a housing inspector there -- a conflict that ended when Santana quit last year after seven months on the job.

Gomez, whose annual salary is $144,000, insisted she did nothing wrong in either case, but city officials said they were concerned over the controversies.

"It's very troubling," Hernandez said.

Gomez, 49, whose position as head of the Community Development Department allowed her to control millions of dollars in anti-poverty money, said elected officials knew the inner workings of her office, including deals now under scrutiny.

"They cannot look at my eyes and say, 'I did not know," said Gomez, director of the city department since 2003. "I understand politics is an issue. I understand that [Mayor] Manny [Diaz] has a lot of pressure for other reasons and that he doesn't want my name to be coming out in the paper."

Even before questions were raised over conflicts, Gomez was under fire: A June 3 report in The Miami Herald revealed that her office directed millions of dollars to developers who failed to build promised affordable homes and, in one case, flipped land for profit rather than building homes for the poor. Days later, a city audit reported many of the same problems.

The city manager began negotiations to force Gomez to resign last week, but the final details have yet to be reached. Hernandez said Gomez is now on leave pending the settlement.

"I initiated discussions trying to explore a way that will be good for her and also definitely good for the city where we could in essence have other leadership at Community Development," said Hernandez, who added that the agreement would be reached soon.

"Obviously, she has been an effective employee for the city over the last four or five years, and that has to be recognized."

Hernandez said he was alarmed, however, by the most recent discovery that the city was providing money to a nonprofit company while Gomez's son worked there.

Records show that Santana began working for SABER, which provides a host of services to the poor, in October 2005.

The following month, Gomez asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a conflict-of-interest exception, since her office provided federal dollars to SABER.

Her letter indicated her son had been offered a job but that he hadn't accepted it.

"Currently,two agencies that have been funded for many years by the city of Miami department of community development, of which I am currently the director, have offered Ruben Santana Jr., my son, a position as housing specialist," Gomez wrote.

HUD denied her request for the exception a month later, saying Santana's employment would violate federal conflict rules.

Gloria Shanahan, a HUD spokeswoman in Miami, said her agency was unaware Santana was already working at SABER when Gomez asked for the exception. "We expect our grantees to provide accurate facts," Shanahan said. "If it comes to light this is not the case, it clearly would be a serious concern to HUD."

In an interview this week, Gomez said she told SABER leaders in January 2006 that the city couldn't provide funds to an agency employing her son. She said she gave SABER 60 days to "cure their conflict" or risk losing their AIDS program funding.

"I said if you don't fire him, I will take the money away," Gomez said.

Gomez couldn't provide documentation supporting her contention that she threatened to sever funding.

SABER files, however, show that Gomez's son quit on May 31, 2006 -- six months after the HUD ruling.

He told his bosses he was moving to Orlando. "He was a very good employee, an excellent inspector," said Millie Laurent, head of the SABER program, which provides housing services to more than 300 AIDS patients.

She said Santana -- who was certified as an inspector -- was not under pressure to resign but left on his own.

Reached at his home in Central Florida, Santana declined to comment.

The case involving the city's funding of two agencies that employed Gomez's ex-husband is still under investigation by HUDand the Miami-Dade state attorney's office, according to both offices.

In addition to the problems surrounding her office, Gomez has been trying to distance herself from another investigation targeting her most recent ex-husband, Rene Rodriguez. The former director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency has been under scrutiny for his role in doling out millions to developers who never built promised homes -- and in some cases, pocketed the money.

Despite the problems, Gomez -- who has worked for the city since 1998 -- may receive a generous compensation package.

She is a year away from qualifying for a pension valued at $1 million or more over her life.

With nine years of employment on the books, Gomez could receive payment for another year that would enable her to draw a $42,000-a-year pension once she turns 55. Hernandez said the city owes Gomez close to 800 hours of accumulated vacation and sick time.

"I want to effect a separation as early as I can, in the cleanest and most professional way," said Hernandez. "When you have senior executives in a top position, it's not unusual for them to receive a severance package."

Miami Commissioner Tomás Regalado said the city was trying to make it appear like they could solve their housing problems by just getting rid of Gomez. "I think there are people higher up involved in all these deals, and it seems to me there is only one fall person: Barbara Gomez."

News of Gomez's departure was greeted with applause by several in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods that are still waiting for affordable housing.

"She needs to go -- they all need to go," said Fanny Campbell, 67, who has lived in the Model Cities area since 1958. "I've been telling them for a long time now: We want our neighborhood back."