Report: Florida agency spent $100,000-plus on own employees instead of helping homeowners

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

By Susan Taylor Martin

Published September 6, 2016


Instead of doing all it could to help struggling homeowners, Florida's housing agency spent more than $100,000 in federal Hardest Hit funds on bonuses and perks for its own employees.

That was among the findings of a report released Friday by the special inspector general for the Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP), which was started after the Great Recession.

As thousands of people waited for financial aid to save their homes, Florida Housing Finance Corp. treated employees to $106,775 in bonuses, Visa gift cards and barbecue from Piggy's BBQ in Tallahassee, the report said. That sum was part of the $3 million in Hardest Hit funds improperly used by agencies in several states that administer the mortgage relief program.

"Congress did not authorize TARP dollars for barbecues, steak and seafood dinners, gift cards, flowers, gym memberships, employee bonuses, litigation, celebrations, cars, and other unnecessary expenses of state housing agencies, but those are some of the charges… forensic analysis uncovered," said Christy Goldsmith Romero, special inspector general for TARP.

Cecka Rose Green, a spokesperson for Florida Housing Finance, said the bonuses were spread out over five years across 15 employees — "all of whom met performance standards to be eligible for the bonuses.”

The other expenditure cited in the report "did not violate any state or federal regulations,'' she said Friday.

According to the report, the Florida Housing Finance expenditures were authorized by the agency's former director, Stephen Auger. He was forced to resign in December after a state audit revealed that the agency had hosted a $52,548 "lender appreciation" dinner of filet mignon and broiled lobsters tails to honor mortgage companies that worked with low-income borrowers.

The agency administers Florida's $1.1 billion share of the $7 billion Hardest Hit Fund, created by the Treasure Department in 2010 help states slammed by the recession and foreclosure crisis.

In the wake of a 2013 Tampa Bay Times investigation that found some Hardest Hit aid was going to felons and tax cheats, Romero's office has been especially critical of Florida Housing Finance. Friday's report said the agency continues to be among the least efficient nationally in getting help to needy homeowners.

As of March 31, Florida had a 14-month backlog of applications with 12,738 homeowners waiting to hear if they qualified. More than 43 percent of applicants had withdrawn their applications — a figure that could "signal inefficiency or mismanagement, lengthy wait times or program criteria that do not match the reality of the homeowners" in Florida, the inspector general found.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Florida's Hardest Hit Fund program blistered in report

As the Times has reported, Florida is now using a large share of its remaining Hardest Hit money to provide downpayment assistance for people buying homes instead of using the money to help people save homes they are struggling to keep. Last year, only 1,584 Florida unemployed homeowners received Hardest Hit mortgage relief even though the state had more than 400,000 unemployed workers.

Green said he inspector general had "misrepresented" the success of Florida's Hardest Hit program. The housing agency has helped nearly 42,000 families so far and is on track to spend all of its money well before the 2020 deadline, she said.

In April, Gov. Rick Scott appointed Harold L. "Trey" Price, a former lobbyist for Florida Realtors, as the agency's executive director. Auger, who left with more than $180,000 for unused sick and vacation time, has started his own consulting company, corporate records show.