DADE CITY — In a jam-packed meeting filled with supporters, the embattled executive director of the Pasco County Housing Authority made her first public comments Tuesday about simmering allegations that she has mismanaged the agency.
"There is no wrongdoing at the housing authority," said Karen Turner, reading a three-minute statement at an emergency meeting of the agency's board. "The facts are the facts and speak for themselves, regardless of some of the news media's wish to sensationalize the story."
The meeting was called after a series of stories on WTSP-Channel 10 and in the Times that detail allegations from a whistle-blower lawsuit painting the agency as riddled with problems. The suit even alleges Turner had sex with a former employee in the office during work hours.
That employee, Pat Driscoll, admitted as much in an interview with the Times.
In her statement, Turner acknowledged the two had a relationship for several years outside of work.
"During the relationship, I endured many types of abuse from Mr. Driscoll," she said. "When I finally got the courage to end the relationship, the abuse continued in the form of threats, harassment, stalking, etc."
Turner said she didn't refer the matter to authorities because she thought the situation would get worse.
The lawsuit filed by former finance director Maggie Taffs accuses Turner of approving large amounts of overtime to a favored employee, not investigating 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.
But the allegations caused Pasco lawmakers to call for more oversight at the housing authority. Last week, Sen. Mike Fasano said he would sponsor legislation to put the agency's board under the control of county commissioners. He said the board effectively has no oversight because it is appointed by the governor, who selects members of hundreds of boards across Florida.
And on Monday, state Rep. John Legg asked Gov. Rick Scott to "review the governance board for effectiveness, as well as replace each member if necessary."
The board has three members, all serving expired terms. There are two vacancies.
Even if the county commissioners selected the board members, it would still remain a separate agency. Community Development director George Romagnoli said he has no intention of running the agency and only wants to see it have better management.
But housing authority board members bristled at the suggestion they need more oversight.
"The county would love to take this over and take over our money," said board member Len Trubia. He said things wouldn't be better under county control, citing instances of laziness by road construction crews.
Roughly 60 people crammed into the small community room Tuesday at the Dade Oaks housing complex in Dade City. After each comment praising Turner, much of the room burst into applause. Many attendees gave a standing ovation after one board member mentioned an award earned by a housing authority complex.
Despite that support, five sheriff's deputies were on hand to discourage disruption.
Board chairwoman Regina Mirabella blamed the hubbub on "an over-dramatic TV news report" and said the lawsuit "is in the process of being dissolved."
She said board members are only volunteers with other jobs. "We try our best," she said.
Only two tenants voiced concerns during the meeting about Turner's leadership, and a few said they were happy with Turner. Others "didn't want to come because they're afraid of retaliation and they could get evicted," said Marlene Escandon, a resident of Cypress Manor in Lacoochee.
But afterward, 10 disgruntled tenants picketed the agency with signs saying Turner should be fired and showing pictures of maintenance problems in their apartments.
Three employees recently fired from the agency watched the meeting but didn't speak. One of the workers, Bryan Clingan, said the meeting was a sham and stocked with pro-Turner supporters.
"It was expected," he said. "The truth will prevail itself when the investigations start."