A New Port Richey landlord admitted she routinely "tipped" property inspectors from the Pasco County Housing Authority, even after being told years ago to stop. Three employees confirmed receiving those gifts, but federal investigators said there isn't "sufficient information" to say whether the landlord's generosity earned her preferential treatment.
The findings are part of a new report from the inspector general's office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. After the Housing Authority received the report Friday, the three employees were suspended without pay for three days.
"If the office of inspector general had seen there were any favors, (the employees) would've been walked out of here," said David Lambert, chairman of the Housing Authority's Board Of Directors. "We didn't uncover any favors. It just looked bad."
Acting as interim executive director, Linda Wright held an agencywide meeting Friday afternoon to warn employees not to accept any gifts.
"Every single person was told it was not to happen again," Lambert said. "If it happened again, it would be termination."
Two provisions in the agency's employee manual discuss gifts. It is a major offense to accept gifts that are "given in the hope or expectation of receiving a favor or better treatment." Another section prohibits workers from accepting "gifts, including Christmas gifts, favors or services that might reasonably tend to improperly influence them."
The landlord, Sriya Harris of New Port Richey, owns 14 homes that are subsidized by low-income vouchers from the Housing Authority. Online property records show she and her husband, Kenneth, own 17 properties in Pasco. Nearly all are modest, single-family homes in the Palm Terrace and Embassy Hills areas north of Port Richey.
Harris declined comment, saying she had not seen the report. HUD investigators wrote that she routinely tipped inspectors and paid a housing counselor a "referral fee" on more than one occasion.
It's unclear when the tips started, but in 2007 two Housing Authority administrators told Harris to stop. "After a brief cessation," the report says, she continued offering the gifts either personally or through property managers. She told investigators she provided the gifts at least through 2010.
Lambert said the gifts included gift cards, and one employee received a $50 Christmas present. "From what I understand, it was less then $500 total," he said. "It still shouldn't have happened."
Added Wright: "It wasn't something that was happening all the time. They admitted to it. I did what I felt was the proper procedure."
Wright is no longer the interim executive director. Dianne Morris, a former Pasco official who recently left a housing job in Virginia, took over Monday as the Housing Authority's new director.
The inspector general's two-page report only provides "facts and information," and "makes no recommendations." There were two other findings:
• A tenant was "scheduled to be terminated" from a housing voucher program in 2006, but continued to receive subsidies through 2009. The report called it an "inappropriate application" of funds. Lambert said the agency now has a procedure to more closely scrutinize such cases. "All files must be reviewed, double checked and gone over, to make sure that doesn't happen again," he said.
• The agency allowed workers to work "excessive" amounts of overtime "without supervision or documentation as to what specific tasks were assigned or completed."
Similar concerns were mentioned in a separate HUD report in February that chastised the Housing Authority after one maintenance worker "routinely worked a significant number of overtime hours." Between January 2006 and September 2011, the worker logged 31 pay periods with more than 40 hours of overtime. Neither report names the employee, though an earlier Times analysis revealed a similar pattern for maintenance staffer Bill Dillon. Payroll records obtained by the Times from late 2007 through early 2008 showed Dillon averaged 72-hour weeks during that period.
Lambert said the agency months ago began requiring all overtime requests to go through the maintenance supervisor, with final approval coming from the executive director.
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.