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Start with a clean house

The people who ran Tampa's housing agency like a banana republic need to be held accountable for the damage. Mayor Dick Greco should replace the entire seven-member board, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement should investigate whether the damning details of a recent federal audit result from mismanagement or criminal conduct.

The incoming director, Jerome Ryans, will be saddled before he starts the job Friday unless the Tampa Housing Authority makes a clean break from the administration of former director Audley Evans. The housecleaning is critical to repairing the agency's credibility in Washington and at home as it seeks public and private support for a multimillion-dollar housing development in east Tampa.

The allegations against Evans are serious, but not altogether new. The Department of Housing and Urban Development found that, under Evans' leadership, the authority approved millions of dollars in no-bid contracts, shifted public assets to private control and steered lucrative contracts to associates and friends of those who ran the Tampa office.

Taxpayers were double-charged for maintenance and other services that often went undone. Large contracts were split into smaller chunks _ a sham known as bid-splitting _ thus enabling the authority to shower money on favored vendors. At last count, a half-million dollars was unaccounted for, records were missing and many residents were living in substandard conditions. The federal government wants Tampa to repay $1.9-million in misspent funds.

The abuses could have been stopped by the authority's governing board. That is why the board exists. But board members, for years, chose instead to defend Evans and attack his critics _ a tactic that left public housing residents nowhere to turn when the ceiling fell and locks broke.

The timing of the audit could not be worse. Tampa is awaiting word on a $32-million federal housing grant, and the mayor, understandably, does not want to do anything that would suggest the agency is in disarray.

But replacing the board would send the right message. It would tell Washington _ which already is aware of the problems in Tampa _ that local officials can responsibly handle taxpayers' funds. It would tell local bankers and developers _ who are being asked to leverage federal aid with their own money _ that the authority can be trusted. And it would serve to remind private citizens of the responsibilities they face by accepting political appointment to a public board.

So far, only the board chairman, Edward Johnson, has shown enough sense of duty to publicly acknowledge that mistakes were made. The others' silence is indicative of the problem with keeping them in positions of public responsibility. In fairness, some of the problems cited by HUD are not peculiar to Tampa. But that does not excuse the abuses, or obviate the need for Ryans and the mayor to clean house. Soft-pedaling the wrongdoing will only invite a repeat performance.

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