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Housing authority to fire managers

The first move the Tampa Housing Authority plans to take in an effort to restore public confidence is to fire some of the agency's top managers, housing authority officials said Thursday.

The city's public housing agency is reeling from a federal audit, released this week, that uncovered problems ranging from deplorable apartments and widespread nepotism to missing money.

Even though the audit pinned much of the blame on Audley Evans, the authority's director from 1988 to 1996, top housing officials said Thursday that Evans was not working alone.

"He had a supporting cast," said Jerome Ryans, the agency's new director who starts today. "And with an audit like this staring us in the face, we have got to make some considerable staff changes."

Ryans would not specify which department heads would lose their jobs. He also plans to centralize all contracting and establish a telephone hot line for residents to complain directly to him.

Ed Johnson, the recently appointed chairman of the authority's board, likes these ideas.

"We have to accept the fact that some of the staff knew what was going on and didn't tell anyone about it," Johnson said. "We can't put it all on Audley."

Evans has not spoken publicly since the audit was released Monday. In a brief telephone call Thursday to WTVT-Ch. 13, he denied any wrongdoing.

The 77-page audit, however, details a pattern of questionable business practices by Evans, both when he was the agency's director and now as the head of a non-profit arm of the housing authority. While he was director, contracts were improperly split into pieces small enough that they didn't need board approval, managers gave jobs to relatives and the authority covered up abuses in annual reports, said inspectors from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And as the head of Tampa Housing Development Corporation, a non-profit that manages some of the authority's property, Evans siphoned public assets and money for projects that never got off the ground. More than $500,000 remains unaccounted for, auditors said.

The audit exposed systemic problems, Ryans said, and starting today he must address them. Credited with rescuing housing projects in Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., he acknowledged that letting staff go is always difficult.

"But I wasn't brought here to keep the status quo," said Ryans, who was hired when Art Milligan, Evans' successor, resigned after less than a year at the authority.

Milligan, now an executive for a real estate company in Atlanta, has faith in his replacement.

"I know that it's not an unmanageable task to straighten that place up," Milligan said. "But I'll tell you what: Jerome is going to earn every dollar of his pay."