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Pasco Housing Authority roils with a resignation, HUD inquiries, rumors

DADE CITY — Maggie Taffs had logged more than 14 years with the Pasco County Housing Authority, working her way up to finance director.

In 2009, she started having concerns, including the management of the agency that receives $15 million from the federal government to provide housing for poor people. During a routine audit last April, she told an auditor that she suspected an agency inspector demanded a $50 bribe to issue a favorable inspection of an apartment.

Her boss, executive director Karen Turner, found out and six days later fired her.

Taffs, 62, filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the housing authority in February, detailing several allegations of mismanagement. She said Turner had sex with a subordinate at the agency's headquarters and gave him overtime he didn't earn.

Two weeks ago, agency officials said the suit would be dismissed and that Taffs was let go for being disruptive at work. But documents from her personnel file show she was terminated specifically because she didn't tell Turner about the alleged bribe.

The legal action is pending. But the lawsuit has been the driving force behind several major changes in the agency over the past three weeks:

• Turner resigned on Friday. She cited health concerns. At an earlier meeting, she admitted having a relationship with a former employee, but said it occurred outside the workplace. She also called him abusive.

• The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development opened a comprehensive audit of the agency, including its finances and management operations.

• HUD called for an independent investigation of the lawsuit's claims and promised technical management assistance to the housing authority's new administration.

• A state lawmaker recommended that Gov. Rick Scott appoint a new board of directors.

"The new board will give them a new vision, a new director, a new start," said George Romagnoli, Pasco's community development director. His office does not oversee the housing authority, and he has had several policy differences with the agency.

• • •

Turner wrote Taffs a memo the day before the firing:

"You maliciously made accusations against your co-worker. As you are aware, you are required to report any concerns that you may have to your supervisor or a Department Head in charge of that department; at no time did you report these concerns."

Taffs sought a review of the firing, but missed the deadline. In a letter to the agency, she said she "responded honestly" when the auditor asked if she was aware of any fraud, potential fraud or mismanagement at the agency. She said she emphasized it was a rumor and had no first-hand knowledge of the claim.

"I answered a direct question truthfully," she wrote. "I followed the auditor's recommendation about resolving the issue, and my statements to him were neither vicious (nor) malicious."

She wrote that she believed it would have been futile to report the rumor to Turner.

"Since she shows extreme disparity in the treatment of employees, I believe that she would have dismissed my complaint without taking action or making an investigation," Taffs wrote.

Florida's whistle-blower law says employees cannot be fired for disclosing an unlawful activity. To receive that protection, the worker has to alert a supervisor about the activity and give the employer a chance to correct the activity. In the lawsuit, Taffs said she gave the auditor permission to tell Turner about her claim. That, she argues, "was tantamount to a disclosure" to her employer.

Taffs has not returned several phone calls, and her lawyer also declined comment. She is asking for $460,000.

A lawyer handling the lawsuit for the housing authority earlier said Taffs was generally "described as being disruptive." Last week, the agency released a dozen letters that fellow employees wrote in 2009 accusing Taffs of numerous instances of yelling, cursing and berating coworkers. Many of the letters were written on the same day.

Those letters were not originally included in Taffs' personnel file and were not listed on the official memo informing Taffs she was fired.

• • •

Karen Jackson Sims, a deputy regional director for HUD's Atlanta office, said the department is conducting a "full financial review" of the housing authority. The department will also forward findings to HUD's inspector general.

Afterward, HUD will conduct a management review and provide technical assistance to new board members and administrators. Jackson Sims said the department began to take a more active role at the housing authority over the past two or three months. The reviews should be finished by the end of the month.

She said HUD did not pressure Turner to resign.

"We don't get involved in personnel matters," she said. "We do get involved in the financials because it's taxpayer money."

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, met with Jackson Sims last week and said he is pleased HUD is stepping in.

"They were very much interested in doing whatever was necessary to help in any way," he said, adding that the department supports his legislation to have county commissioners appoint the housing authority board members, instead of the governor.

Board chairwoman Regina Mirabella said she spoke with Turner over the phone Thursday about the possibility of resignation. She called Turner a "sacrificial lamb" who walked away to remove distractions at the agency. After their phone conversation, Turner dropped off her resignation letter at the housing authority's Dade City headquarters, ending her 19-year tenure with the agency.

Turner initially suggested staying in her role through the end of the month, but Mirabella said it would be better for her to leave immediately to get past the problem.

Mirabella also denied that HUD pressured Turner to resign. But she did say, "HUD was satisfied with Karen's resigning, they felt that was enough."

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

Pasco Housing Authority roils with a resignation, HUD inquiries, rumors 09/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 3, 2011 2:58pm]

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