Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Business

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

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.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:Florida's Hardest Hit funds finding way to 'first-time homebuyers' who really aren't

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.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:Hardest Hit Fund has spent millions in Tampa Bay on people who lose homes anyway

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.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

Comments
TECO prepares to open solar farm in Balm

TECO prepares to open solar farm in Balm

BALM — Tampa Electric will open one of four new solar projects planned for Hillsborough County next month, with a goal of generating enough electricity for 12,000 homes in the area.TECO constructed its Balm Solar project on 548 acres in south Hillsbo...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Is the future of department stores off-price? Macy’s Backstage opens in Tampa

Is the future of department stores off-price? Macy’s Backstage opens in Tampa

TAMPA — Kishia Gainey pushes a blue shopping cart while eyeing a wall of shoes.The mother of four is back-to-school shopping at a Ross Dress for Less in a Citrus Park plaza. She’s already nabbed a pair of D.C. brand sneakers for her teen son that are...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Dining events: Bolts Brew Fest, Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining Month

Dining events: Bolts Brew Fest, Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining Month

BOLTS: BREW FESTI was going to list all the craft brewers whose wares will be on offer at 7 p.m. Friday at this year’s Bolts Brew Fest, a Tampa Bay Lightning benefit for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. But with 50 local breweries alone, and another ...
Published: 08/15/18
Royal Caribbean will no longer allow emotional support animals on cruises

Royal Caribbean will no longer allow emotional support animals on cruises

In a recent policy change, international cruise line Royal Caribbean has announced it will not allow emotional support animals on its cruise ships effective immediately.The cruise line said emotional support animals, also known as therapy animals, we...
Published: 08/15/18
Tampa ranked third best city in U.S. to retire; St. Petersburg is 23rd

Tampa ranked third best city in U.S. to retire; St. Petersburg is 23rd

Tampa Bay has been named one of the best places for people to retire in the United States, according to a new ranking by credit-monitoring website WalletHub .The financial advice website released its ranking after comparing data collected from more ...
Published: 08/15/18
Retail sales rising at strong clip

Retail sales rising at strong clip

Associated PressWASHINGTON — Americans shopped at a healthy pace in July, buying more cars, clothes and appliances, evidence that confident consumers are helping drive robust economic growth. Retail sales rose at a 0.5 percent annual rate in July, af...
Published: 08/15/18
Girl Scouts announce new gluten free cookie flavor

Girl Scouts announce new gluten free cookie flavor

Move over, Thin Mints — there’s a new cookie in town. And this one is gluten free.Girl Scouts of the USA announced a new flavor Monday. Available during the upcoming 2019 cookie season, Caramel Chocolate Chip "features rich caramel, semi-sweet chocol...
Published: 08/15/18
Tampa General ranked Florida’s second-best hospital in U.S. News study

Tampa General ranked Florida’s second-best hospital in U.S. News study

Tampa General Hospital was ranked as Florida’s second-best hospital in the U.S. News and World Report’s 2018 Hospital Rankings released Tuesday, while Moffitt Cancer Center was named the country’s eighth-best cancer hospital.The rankings, which analy...
Published: 08/14/18
Updated: 08/15/18
Wells Fargo to close two Pinellas County banks as part of nationwide closure

Wells Fargo to close two Pinellas County banks as part of nationwide closure

Wells Fargo will close two of its branches in Pinellas County as part of a nationwide closure that reflects a continued shift toward online banking.The two branches — one in Redington Shores and one at the Dunedin Plaza — are the only ones in Tampa B...
Published: 08/14/18
Updated: 08/15/18
State Vacuum and ‘Bernie Apestein’ may be waving goodbye to longtime location

State Vacuum and ‘Bernie Apestein’ may be waving goodbye to longtime location

For nearly 40 years, while wearing an eclectic mix of fashion, a mechanical gorilla has stood outside State Vacuum of Tampa, waving hello to Kennedy Boulevard motorists.His name is Bernie Apestein. "That gorilla has been a mainstay" said David Epstei...
Published: 08/14/18
Updated: 08/15/18