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Federal officials investigate Pasco County Housing Authority after whistle-blower lawsuit

DADE CITY — Federal officials are investigating the Pasco County Housing Authority following recent allegations of mismanagement.

Meanwhile, executive director Karen Turner, accused in a whistle-blower lawsuit of having sex at the agency's headquarters with a subordinate, has taken a medical leave.

"Think about what she's been under," said Regina Mirabella, chairwoman of the agency's board of directors. She did not elaborate on Turner's medical issues, citing federal privacy restrictions.

The authority, Pasco's largest provider of low-income housing, is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. today at the Pasco Terrace in Port Richey.

The agency, which operates on $15.1 million in federal housing money, has come under intense scrutiny over the past three weeks. Mirabella confirmed that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating the agency. She said the agency has nothing to hide and welcomes the review.

"They have to check if people are saying stuff," said Mirabella, who hasn't been happy about the recent media coverage. "When they find out there's nothing there, there's not going to be a big media hype."

Former finance director Maggie Taffs sued the agency in February. She accused Turner of approving large amounts of overtime for a favored employee, failing to investigate allegations that an agency inspector accepted a $50 bribe, and mistakenly approving four years of rental payments after a tenant lost her public housing benefits.

The agency's lawyer said the housing authority investigated those claims and found no evidence to back them up.

Turner has been the director since 2000. At an emergency meeting Aug. 23, she read a statement in which she admitted having a relationship with former employee Pat Driscoll but said it didn't interfere with work. She also said he was abusive during the relationship and after it ended. She said she would give no further comment to reporters.

Mirabella said Linda Wright, who manages the agency's Section 8 federal housing vouchers, will fill in for Turner on an interim basis. "Linda knows all the programs. She can step in to cover things," she said.

U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, whose district includes portions of Pasco, wrote a series of letters on Aug. 19 to HUD, the FBI and the U.S. attorney general. In one letter, he asked the housing department's investigators whether "there have been any issues or questions of impropriety" about the housing authority.

Nugent also said that if employees were fired for "protesting what they thought to be an illegal and improper use of taxpayer funds, the full weight of the law should be brought to bear on those who are responsible."

The agency has also come under fire from state lawmakers. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is preparing legislation that would put the agency's board under the control of county commissioners instead of the governor. The bill, he said, would provide "better oversight at a local level." He plans to present the idea later this month at a meeting of Pasco's legislative delegation.

Only three of the five slots on the board are filled, and those three members are serving expired terms.

Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, last month called on Gov. Rick Scott to review the board for effectiveness and "replace each member if necessary." He said he recently spoke with Scott's office, and "they assured me this was a high priority."

"I'm not saying these people are bad people," Legg said. "It's time to get some fresh blood in there, people who may have a little more energy than someone who's been there for 10 years."

Legg said he is recommending four people for the board: Ed Blommel, a retired Tampa Electric Co. executive who has worked for Habitat for Humanity; Dave Lambert, a manager at the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative; John Finnerty, president of Habitat's east and central Pasco operation; and Emile Laurino, executive director of the Center for Independence, which helps disabled adults.

Legg said all are well-respected community members who can help "make sure the agency's on the right path."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Federal officials investigate Pasco County Housing Authority after whistle-blower lawsuit 09/01/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 1, 2011 8:53pm]
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