Article Courtesy of The
Tampa Bay Times
By Susan Taylor Martin
Published March 11, 2019
New federal report says Florida housing officials
spent mortgage relief money for their own enjoyment.
Florida officials used a federal fund designed to
help struggling homeowners as a "deep pocket'' for travel and stays in
high-end hotels, a new report says.
Between 2011 and 2016, officials of the
Florida Housing Finance Corp. charged the Hardest Hit Fund
all or part of the cost of attending conferences in San
Diego, Orlando, Miami, Boston and Nashville, Tenn., even
though less than two hours out of four days of meetings in
each instance appeared to be related to the Hardest Hit
mortgage relief program.
In other instances, housing officials used Hardest Hit money
to pay for routine agency meetings at four-star hotels
including the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf
Club and the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, according to a report
released today by the Special Inspector General for the
Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Many of the expenditures, which totaled more than $40,000
and violated federal regulations, came at a time when
Florida had one of the highest rates of denying Hardest Hit
help to homeowners who couldn't pay their mortgages.
"Any dollar wasted or spent inappropriately is one less
dollar for homeowners,'' the report said.
Thousands of Tampa Bay homes went into foreclosure,
some of them because state housing officials were slow in
distributing Hardest Hit mortage relief funds. This notice was on a
St. Petersburg house.
The U.S. Treasury Department created the $9.6 billion
Hardest Hit Fund in 2010 to help Florida and 17 other states reeling
from the foreclosure crisis. Florida Housing Finance, in charge of the
state's $1.1 billion share, repeatedly came under fire for its slowness
in disbursing the money to desperate homeowners even as agency employees
received large bonuses and enjoyed taxpayer-funded meals and hotel
Following a Tampa Bay Times investigation, Florida Housing's executive
director, Stephen Auger, was forced to resign in 2016 when an audit
showed the agency had hosted a $52,000 lobster-and-filet-mignon dinner
to honor lenders that dealt with low-income borrowers.
In the new 85-page report, federal special inspector general Christy
Goldsmith Romero said she found "too many times'' that officials in
Florida and other states used Hardest Hit money for their own enjoyment.
"Flying around the country, staying at luxury hotels, attending
conferences beachside and at other vacation destinations are not ‘must
have’ costs for a local foreclosure prevention program,'' Romero said.
Florida, in particular, "had a culture of inappropriate spending'' of
Hardest Hit dollars, the report said:
Florida Housing charged the
Hardest Hit Fund nearly $18,000 — the most of any state — to send
employees to an annual national housing conference that had little
or nothing do with the fund. For one conference, three agency
officials each charged the fund for an extra day's per diem and an
extra night's stay at the Marriott New Orleans even though "there
was no documentation to show how the participation of these
individuals for this extra time was necessary … The Florida agency
communications specialist spent $959 in Hardest Hit money to travel
to Miami for three nights in 2016 although "there was no
documentation of the event or why the participation of this
individual was necessary for the Hardest Hit Fund.''
Two officials of Florida
Housing billed nearly $1,000 for stays in the Vinoy, Tampa's
Epicurean Hotel and Orlando's Castle Hotel to conduct "Realtor
training.'' The agency provided no documentation "of what the
training was about or whether it related to (the Hardest Hit Fund).”
The report says Florida should
reimburse the Treasury Department $23,088 for some of the travel and
conference costs. Florida Housing Finance, which ended its Hardest Hit
program last year, said it would have no comment until it had read the
The report also found disallowed uses of Hardest Hit funds in other
states. In North Carolina, for instance, $2,500 went for a speech on "
Motivation by Chocolate'' and $3,000 was spent on an evening reception
with gourmet desserts like "Strawberry Shortcake Martinis, Cake Bites
and Mousse Shooters of the Season.''
In all, states charged the Hardest Hit Fund for more than $400,000 in
prohibited conference and travel expenses although the report said the
amount could be higher "given the lack of transparency in state agency