Clear46° WeatherClear46° Weather

Lawsuit against Pasco Housing Authority accuses director of improprieties

DADE CITY — A whistleblower lawsuit depicts the Pasco County Housing Authority as an agency riddled by mismanagement. It even accuses executive director Karen Turner of having sex at the office during work hours.

And while the suit does not identify Turner's alleged partner, a former administrator who retired four years ago said last week he not only had sex with her in the office, but she also paid him for overtime he didn't earn.

"I had an affair with the executive director," Pat Driscoll, 66, told the Times. "I had sex in the office during work hours, case closed."

Turner, 47, referred questions about the allegations to the agency's lawyer, Shelly Johnson. But Regina Mirabella, one of three gubernatorial appointees who oversee the agency, called Driscoll a "shunned lover" who is abusive and "swore he was going to destroy her." Mirabella agreed that Turner and Driscoll had a relationship but said it was strictly personal and "wasn't in the office."

"This is a personal thing that's gone public," she said. "She made a bad choice when she got involved with this individual."

Johnson said the agency doesn't have a policy prohibiting personal relationship between co-workers. She said there's no evidence the relationship "in any way impacted the executive director's job performance."

Johnson also released a sworn statement that was signed Friday by a former co-worker of Driscoll's who said he made a similar claim in the past. Gloria Tucker, who said she worked with Driscoll for 10 years at a now defunct juvenile center in San Antonio, wrote that Driscoll "claimed to have had sex with a (young secretary) while at work." Tucker said the secretary denied the allegation and Driscoll left under pressure.

Asked about the statement, Driscoll initially said "that's a personal thing between me and the secretary." But he later expressed dismay that Tucker would make the accusation and said, "the secretary is 25 years younger than me — c'mon, give me a break."

The key allegations in the lawsuit are not about sex but improper financial dealings. Driscoll said he is "unfamiliar about anything in that lawsuit."

The allegations will be aired out Tuesday during an emergency board meeting at the Dade Oaks housing complex. In the meantime, state Sen. Mike Fasano is calling for more oversight of the agency, and Pasco's low-income housing chief is questioning the housing authority's competence.

• • •

The lawsuit was filed in February by Maggie Taffs, a former finance director. She claims she was wrongfully fired in April 2010 after raising questions about illegal actions at the agency. She is asking for $460,000, including money for damage to her reputation.

Taffs did not return multiple calls seeking comment. Her lawyer was out of the country. Her lawsuit makes three general allegations:

• Another employee said a housing authority building inspector solicited a $50 bribe from a landlord in return for a favorable report.

• Turner gave unwarranted overtime to Bill Dillon, a maintenance staffer. Taffs included a copy of one of Dillon's timecards showing 162 hours of overtime over two weeks, including 26 hours worked in one day. She says he earned $20,000 of overtime in one year. In the suit, Taffs also claimed Dillon was Turner's "paramour" after Driscoll left the agency.

• The housing authority paid $25,000 to a landlord over a four-year period after the tenant was no longer eligible for federally subsidized vouchers.

Johnson, the housing authority's lawyer, said all the allegations were thoroughly investigated and "were found to be false and completely unfounded." In particular:

• The agency called more than 50 landlords, asking if they had any complaints about the building inspector accused of asking for a bribe. None mentioned the bribe. Reports of the calls furnished by Johnson show the vast majority said they had no problems with the inspector.

• Regarding the time card, Johnson said there was "obviously some error in how they documented it." But she said an investigation showed all of the hours involved Dillon repainting the inside of the agency's office. "There's a legitimate explanation for how the time was worked," she said. After Taff's allegations, she said, the housing authority adopted a new policy that requires board approval for any overtime exceeding $1,000.

• Johnson said Taffs is simply misinformed about the apparent landlord overpayment. She said the tenant was initially notified she would lose her Section 8 assistance. But the agency never held a formal hearing to revoke her benefits. The person stayed in the property, Johnson said, and "from all indications she has been a great tenant."

Alan Zimmet, an outside lawyer handling the lawsuit on behalf of the housing authority, said Taffs was fired for berating and cursing other employees. "Generally she was described as being disruptive," he said. Mirabella added the "final straw" was her making false allegations about co-workers. She said that violated the agency's personnel manual.

Zimmet plans to file a legal motion claiming the lawsuit is baseless. The motion states that under state law, an attorney who knowingly files a baseless suit can be personally liable for the other side's legal bills.

Mirabella said the lawsuit is "in the process of being thrown out."

• • •

The lawsuit largely went unnoticed until its claims — along with those of Driscoll — were aired in a series of stories on WTSP-Channel 10.

After those stories aired, Sen. Fasano said he plans to sponsor legislation to put the housing authority's board under the control of county commissioners. He said the agency has little oversight because its board is appointed by the governor, who also selects the members of hundreds of small agencies across Florida.

Pasco Community Development director George Romagnoli supports the move. "They are the largest affordable housing provider in this county, and they need to get straight."

Romagnoli said the housing authority declined to apply for a federal grant for the Lacoochee area. "They said, 'Oh, our projects in Lacoochee really don't need a lot of help.' "

Mirabella said the agency is subject to an annual audit, as well as routine visits from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which supplies a big chunk of the authority's budget. She said Fasano's legislation is part of a longtime effort by Romagnoli to get control of the housing authority.

The $15.1 million agency is funded entirely by grants from several federal agencies for low-income housing programs. The authority has 12 public housing properties and has 1,400 Section 8 vouchers.

Turner took over as executive director in November 2000, after the authority's board dismissed former director Jaya Radhakrishnan. She had taken over the job in May 1989, when Daniel Culliton resigned amid management questions.

• • •

On Aug. 12, Turner fired three employees. In interviews, each told the Times they were never told why they were let go. They were told of the decision at 4 p.m. on a Friday and quickly escorted to their cars.

"There were several of us I think that were aware of the wrongdoings," said one of the fired workers, Patricia LaPierre. "We're just aware of what's going on, and they know that."

In November 2009, a month after Taffs first brought her concerns to Mirabella, the housing authority's board received 27 letters from employees who extolled Turner's leadership skills. The letters depict her as a kind and patient boss who has an open-door policy.

All of the letters were written in the span of one week and one was e-mailed to an agency official under the heading, "per your request." According to LaPierre, administration officials told employees to write letters praising Turner.

"I have never heard of a boss soliciting letters of praise," she said.

Included in the stack is a Nov. 23 letter from Valerie Mooney that read in part: "I have worked with Ms. Turner for many years. In this time I have never seen Ms. Turner be unfair or show favoritism to any employees."

Mooney was one of the three workers fired last week.

"If asked today,'' she said, "no, I would not write a letter."

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

Lawsuit against Pasco Housing Authority accuses director of improprieties 08/20/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 20, 2011 3:00pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...