CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala ordered a management review and promised tighter reins on employee gifts and private-sector donations Tuesday after a harsh audit of county housing agencies.
The Community Development Department and the Housing Finance Authority, which promote affordable housing and share the same staff, had firms handling its projects pay for an $8,000 25th anniversary party for the authority in 2007.
They also used finance authority credit cards to buy officials gifts, such as a $115 bracelet and a $144 crystal decanter.
The contributions raised the specter of "pay to play" politics, and the gifts avoided the standard review by the county, according the county's internal audit division.
LaSala said he will bar employees from asking county vendors to donate for events, though county policy now does not go that far. He also will require the Human Resources Department to review gift purchases.
"I would have said that doesn't look right — give it back. … Now if you can't get enough (money), that's life," said LaSala, who was not administrator at the time of the gift purchases.
In a report to the County Commission, LaSala promised to hire a private firm to assess the agencies' practices and their work with nonprofits and other firms — a key part of the criticism.
But LaSala also suggested auditors have to work better with the county, and said their harshest ethical findings were "without any shred of practical reality." He declined to elaborate later, though he and other officials have questioned the justifications of auditors, saying they have a grudge.
Inspector General Hector Collazo said only that he welcomed the chance of a better relationship with county officials.
The audit, spanning more than two years, found that The Community Development Department gave a St. Petersburg nonprofit, Contemporary Housing Alternatives of Florida, "excessive" breaks on loans.
The nonprofit received 87 percent of concessions the agency allowed, including at least $4.7 million in forgiven debt, auditors found.
Retired County Administrator Fred Marquis has been an agency board member for much of the past decade, and former Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers joined in 2008. Both men have denied pushing for favors.
Contemporary Housing Alternatives is designated as the preferred developer of rental housing with the county, guaranteeing it at least 15 percent of funding.
Community development director Anthony Jones maintains the audit was off-base. He did acknowledge Tuesday the need to improve record keeping, but said the agencies meet federal and state standards. The forgiveness provisions are part of loans from the start, he said.
But auditors accused him of intentionally denying them records and forcing them to buy their own table and chairs to work on.
After a two-hour presentation, the commissioners asked few questions. Chairwoman Karen Seel said LaSala's management review was appropriate.
"So many of these (findings) are 180 degrees from what you're saying," Commissioner Ken Welch told Jones.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.