Weslaco Housing Authority travel costs in question

OIG audit: Expenses for conferences, rentals were ‘unreasonable’

WESLACO — A federal audit of the Weslaco Housing Authority has unearthed more than $23,000 in questionable travel costs by employees and members of the Board of Commissioners.

According to a 13-page review of WHA travel expenses conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as the Office of Inspector General, expenditures that did not comply with federal, state and local requirements were found to be “ineligible, unreasonable, unnecessary and unsupported.”

The audit, which covers the period between December 2012 and February 2016, was performed over four months and included interviews with staff and commissioners, as well as Mayor David Suarez, who is tasked with appointing commissioners.

The findings From $71,530 in WHA’s total travel costs, $23,136 were paid to commissioners and employees for expenses that included the ineligible attendance of a 2015 conference in Las Vegas, a 2014 condominium rental in South Padre Island for another ineligible meeting, and payment for a former commissioner and his spouse to attend conferences they were also ineligible to attend in Denver and Las Vegas in 2013 and 2014.

These charges were often posted or billed to a WHA credit card, the audit reported.

Other instances included lodging that violated conflict of interest rules when the WHA covered the costs for a commissioner who rented a South Padre Island beach house from his spouse in 2014, and a commissioner who was improperly reimbursed on multiple occasions in 2015 for his and his friend’s meals, an alcoholic beverage and other expenses considered “incidental.”

Additional cases of ineligible travel costs the audit described as “miscellaneous,” extended stays and unnecessary car rentals make up several more instances that HUD and OIG have called into question.

What’s more, the audit found that the WHA “could not provide supporting documentation for the amounts that it paid its travelers for meals, incidentals, hotels and other costs as required by federal, state and local requirements,” at least according to 11 of the 25 travel vouchers reviewed.

Commissioners’ expenses make up 88 percent ($20,260) of what the audit referred to as “improper” costs — this compared to just $2,876 in employee spending that’s in question.

“This condition occurred because the (Weslaco Housing) Authority lacked controls and oversight, its staff was intimidated and did not question travelers’ costs, and travelers did not understand or disregarded the requirements,” the audit stated.

The recommendations

HUD and OIG recommended that the director of the San Antonio Office of Public Housing require WHA to repay the amount in question without the use of federal funds. This includes $11,172 for ineligible travel, $2,946 for excessive lodging rates, extended trips and car rentals, and $9,020 for unsupported meals, incidental expenses, lodging costs and travel for training.

Of the expenses that HUD and OIG called into question, $11,096 and $12,041 were paid from the WHA’s Housing Choice Voucher program, which assists low-income families, and operating subsidy funds, respectively. The voucher program has been budgeted approximately $2 million between 2013 and 2015 and administers 484 vouchers locally, according to the audit.

The WHA is also asked to adopt policies and procedures in accordance with federal and state guidelines, as well as provide training with regard to responsibilities and duties as it pertains to travel requirements. Administrative sanctions including suspension, limited denial of participation or debarment against the commissioners is also recommended.

The response

In a June 6 letter responding to a draft of the audit, WHA Interim Executive Director George Pina said commissioners and employees “were acting in good faith.”

Pina, who replaced Executive Director Ruben Villarreal in May, stated that policies have been changed and adopted to address the issues cited in the findings, further noting that “certain commissioners are no longer involved or associated with the housing authority…” Pina went on to state that current and past commissioners since January 2014 were not given access to WHA credit cards.

Referring to an annual conference in Las Vegas, held in 2015 for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Pina wrote that three commissioners participated based on the advice of WHA administration.

“The commissioners mistakenly relied” on administration when asked if this conference was “permissible” to attend, Pina wrote, explaining that the local population is predominantly Hispanic and that administration encouraged attendance because it would help make them better leaders.

Pina goes on to explain in his letter the circumstances behind each case, stating that the WHA accepts responsibility in nearly all the findings and will collaborate with HUD and OIG to reach a resolution. The exception was a May 2014 meeting on South Padre Island, in which Pina contends was in compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The changes

“Great” measures have already been taken, according to Pina, to satisfy the recommendations, such as ratifying the WHA travel policy in accordance with state law, implementing strict monitoring controls, proposing trainings and consultations as well as collaborating with the federal agencies on “a means to get repayment from its commissioners and staff.”

Although Pina’s letter did not state whether commissioners will be debarred, he did remind that the WHA has been recognized by HUD as a “high performer” — this after conceding much.

“The WHA’s intent was to incur travel costs that were permissible and were cost effective,unfortunately because of oversight, lack of training and/or lack of enforcement, some travel costs conflicted with federal, state and local requirements,” Pina stated.

“More importantly, they directly contradict the values and principals (sic) of the WHA. The current WHA administration and commissioners are dedicated to make continued strides and implement policies and procedures to prevent similar findings in the future.”

The aftermath

The board opted to terminate Villarreal as executive director during a special meeting on Tuesday. Asked whether the audit’s findings played any role in firing Villarreal, who was initially placed on paid suspension at a May 9 special meeting, WHA attorney Dennis Ramirez offered no comment.

Villarreal, whose termination officially took effect on Thursday, said only conferences that OIG has questioned occurred during his tenure as executive director, one of which he attended on South Padre Island.

Frank Castellano preceded Villarreal during an interim term, from February 2014 to February 2015, and Ruben Sepulveda before him as executive director between October 2012 and January 2014.

Pina and Arturo Perez, chairman of the WHA Board of Commissioners, could not be reached for comment as of press time. Ramirez and WHA Administrative Assistant Alma D. Pequeño did, however, issue a statement Thursday in response to the audit.

“Prior to the audit report the WHA had taken measures and has been proactive to ensuring policy and practice are consistent with federal requirements,” the statement read. “In addition, the WHA has done its best to ensure that the current Board of Commissioners and employees are aware of best practices. At all times relevant, the WHA, its commission and employees were acting in good faith and believed their practices fell within all federal, state and local requirements.”

Suarez said he’s been in communication with OIG about his intentions to replace any commissioners who were involved with such expenditures, unless they decide to resign, upon their terms expiring. The commissioners in question were not named in the report.

Disclosure: Michael Rodriguez is the editor of the Mid-Valley Town Crier, which currently leases office space in Weslaco at the 401 S. Kansas Ave. location that’s managed by Mayor David Suarez and Johnny Bautista, who was appointed to the WHA Board of Commissioners in May.