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Nothing to salvage of THAP

Published Sep. 10, 2005

What makes the mismanagement at the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan especially obscene is that the abuses fall on the backs of veterans, poor people and AIDS patients. They deserve better, and so do the taxpayers who foot THAP's bills. The Tampa City Council should sever the relationship and find a new partner to handle the city's housing efforts. And the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs to explain why it failed to oversee the program despite all the red flags popping up.

THAP's credibility is entirely shot, and its management is so inherently flawed that any attempt to salvage the organization would be a waste of time and money. THAP's governing board hasn't lifted a finger since revelations first arose about the sleazy business decisions made by director Chet Luney. THAP instead has hidden behind a lawyer-spokesman whose insulation of those in charge only adds to the charade. It is senseless to give public money to a group that sees no obligation to be accountable in return.

The council acted responsibly by halting any further payments to THAP until an audit reveals how public funds were previously spent. The Times reported recently that THAP has charged the government "rent" for vacant apartments, in a back-handed deal that channels money through THAP-related entities. Payments to house HIV patients was spent instead to renovate property THAP owns.

The Times also reported that the VA was investigating Luney's handling of a veterans' housing program. Records and interviews show Luney applied for government money to run programs that didn't exist. Inspectors faulted the lack of counseling, job training and other veterans' services, and complained THAP operated without adequate oversight and controls.

More financial and ethical irregularities crop up every day, and assurances by the city's development chief, Fernando Noriega, do nothing to change the picture of an oversight process in disarray. Noriega was at it again recently, telling the council he could monitor the nonprofits with additional staff. This is the same city office whose employees have already accepted gifts and contracts from THAP _ private business, free labor, even a cruise. It's the last place to hand even broader authority. The nonprofits should be audited by independent firms that submit their findings not to the development office, but to the city attorney.

The numerous ongoing investigations of THAP shatter confidence in the city's ability to manage important social programs. What the council needs is an inventory of alternative groups that can provide these services, a plan for how the mayor's administration will clean up its act and new disclosure requirements so that nonprofits doing the city's bidding won't abuse their public trust.

The VA, meanwhile, needs to explain why local administrators endorsed THAP projects in glowing terms, even as complaints were raised about Luney and his operations. The VA's threatened cutoff of funds to THAP is a stark reversal from the warm praise administrators handed out earlier this year. If the VA was priming the money spigot without knowing what was going on, then it shares the blame for a scandal that has cast a shadow over the city's housing efforts.