An ugly war is raging in the typically quiet Pinellas County Housing Authority.
Its board has been roiled in controversy for months, swept up in a sea of accusations and bickering that is threatening the agency's ability to do its job, a St. Petersburg Times investigation has found.
Allegations — which climb all the way to the agency's $220,500-a-year executive director — include charges of sexual harassment, open government law violations and the mishandling of federal government contracts.
The clash, which has escalated in recent weeks, centers around prominent Republicans who have become fierce enemies: executive director Darrell Irions and board member and Gulfport lawyer Thomas Minkoff.
Irions complains that Minkoff dominates meetings and is combative. Minkoff contends Irions is untrustworthy.
Both Gov. Charlie Crist, who appoints Housing Authority board members, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development are aware of the problems. The Housing Authority is charged with finding subsidized housing for low-income individuals and families.
Irions now says he may resign, rather than keep fighting. One of his top assistants said the whole mess has brought her to tears.
It's unclear if any laws have been broken. But this fight isn't really about that anymore.
• • •
Irions is the director of three housing authorities: Pinellas County, St. Petersburg and Dunedin.
Since combining the posts in 2004, Irions has tried to blend the agencies' staffs and infrastructure to reduce costs.
His problems with Minkoff started over a plan to build a $3.7 million joint headquarters for the county and St. Petersburg. The county authority would then replace its building on Ulmerton Road in Largo with affordable housing.
Minkoff has consistently questioned the deal. Among his concerns, and others uncovered during the Times examination:
• Irions chose a developer for the building without a public bid. John Von Hof, president of Lema Construction Co., agreed to build the new office first and then sell it to the Housing Authority, a move that skirts federal bid requirements.
• The building's ownership structure — with the county and city each owning a 50 percent stake — would make it difficult for the two bodies to ever separate, Minkoff said. The city Housing Authority did not oppose the partnership.
• The attorney who drafted the agreements between Pinellas and St. Petersburg was responsible for representing both sides.
At first, Irions did not tell either board that the same law firm would represent both sides in the land deal.
Minkoff requested an independent legal review, which warned that the deal would inextricably link the two authorities.
Irions and his top advisers dismissed the review, claiming that the attorney they hired disrespected the authority staff by privately conferring with Minkoff and board chairwoman Angela Rouson before he submitted his findings to the authority as a whole.
Irions suggested the attorney, Justin Zinzow, was too cozy with Minkoff.
Zinzow of Tarpon Springs served on the state judicial nominating committee that named Minkoff a finalist for a judgeship last year. Minkoff, who was not selected, maintained he only knows Zinzow professionally and did not dictate his report.
"Just saying it's a conflict doesn't make it a conflict," Minkoff said. "This conflict was created only after Mr. Zinzow asked specific and pointed questions and raised five pages worth of concerns about this deal."
After the report, Minkoff tried unsuccessfully to hire Zinzow as the authority's full-time attorney.
"They are supposed to be the watchdogs," Irions said of the board members. "But there is a way to do it and there is a way not to do that."
As it stands, the building deal is on hold. The 20,000-square-foot, two-story office would house both authorities.
But according to construction plans, it only has one large office for one chief executive.
• • •
Before last month, the board of five members had whittled to three ‑— Minkoff, Rouson and St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons.
Rouson has typically been aligned with Minkoff, who was the campaign manager for her husband, state Rep. Darryl Rouson. Gibbons, who has sided with Irions, has since been replaced by the governor and three new board members appointed.
Board members are unpaid.
In recent months, Minkoff has gone as far as to stop approving meeting minutes, saying they distort what happened.
At times, he has berated authority staffers and board members alike. He's also accused Irions and his staff of influencing volunteers selected to evaluate a bid for a new general counsel, according to a review of more than 25 hours of audio recordings from recent meetings.
Irions aide Debbie Johnson said Minkoff's accusations and sarcastic facial expressions were so offensive he once made her cry during a meeting.
"I was shaking," she said. "I don't even know if I was seeing straight at that point."
And there are more accusations:
• Last year, an anonymous tipster mailed a letter to the homes of all the St. Petersburg and Pinellas housing board members that claimed Irions had sexually harassed an employee. (The boards decided not to investigate the anonymous claims, and the board could not provide a copy. Staffers said no one asked that the letter be stored as a public record.)
• Minkoff complains that he has not been notified of last-minute meeting time and date changes. (Irions insists Minkoff was informed of changes.)
• Irions and Gibbons charge that Minkoff is trying to use the board for his personal gain. For instance, Minkoff recently had the Housing Authority reimburse him $215 for an ethics seminar in Tallahassee that helped him maintain his status with the Florida Bar Association.
• Irions said board members have privately communicated through e-mails. (It's unclear if the communications violate open government laws because board members did not immediately turn over the correspondence for public inspection.)
Irions complained about the e-mails to the state Attorney General's Office. He then sent an e-mail to the board paraphrasing Alexis Lambert, the state Sunshine Law attorney, which concluded the board had violated the law.
In an interview with the Times, Lambert said that was "not entirely accurate."
"I'm very disinclined to accuse people of criminal conduct based on the contents of one phone conversation," she said.
Irions also told commissioners HUD officials said they would not allow Zinzow to serve as the board's general counsel, a statement HUD contradicted.
"Our department did not provide a decision or determination concerning expansion of scopes of work or contract modification," spokesman William Kalbas wrote in an e-mail.
• • •
Irions says he can no longer work with Minkoff.
He has begun discussions with the St. Petersburg Housing Authority — which essentially contracts him to the Pinellas Housing Authority — about whether he can quit.
"The friction between Commissioner Minkoff and I — I don't know if it's resolvable," Irions said. "He doesn't trust what I am saying."
Minkoff agrees. He said he doesn't trust Irions. Minkoff would not say if he would try to have Irions fired.
"Information has been withheld systemically from the commission," he said. "We can't govern if we don't have the information we need to make good decisions."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or email@example.com.