Weslaco Housing Authority under scrutiny

The Weslaco Housing Authority may be on the hook to repay over $100,000 to the federal government after an audit found it had improperly retained legal services.

The Office of the Inspector General conducted the audit on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after the WHA self reported the error in procuring its legal services between 2014 and 2017.

In a statement released Thursday, the OIG said the WHA did not follow federal or state requirements when it approved a contract with Dennis Ramirez for legal services in January 2014. Nor did Ramirez’s hiring follow the WHA’s own guidelines. The WHA “paid unreasonable and unsupported costs” for Ramirez’s services as a result, the report concludes.

In a statement responding to the audit report, the WHA declined to comment on actions carried out by commissioners and administrative staff who no longer serve the WHA. However, it said a then-pressing need for legal services prompted Ramirez’s hiring.

“In their haste to ensure that legal matters were handled on a timely basis, the WHA Board and Administration at that time did not follow the proper procurement procedures,” the statement reads.

That urgency came from litigation the housing authority was then facing, the WHA told investigators in an April 12 response to a draft audit report.

“This is not a situation that was intended to defraud, misappropriate, maliciously misspend, or spend funds and receive nothing in exchange,” the WHA response reads.

THE BREAKDOWN

The OIG audited the WHA between June 2018 and February 2019. During that time, it examined records from 2014 through 2018, including the housing authority’s legal services contracts, payment receipts, commission meeting minutes spanning five years, and fiscal records from 2014 through 2018.

Too, investigators spoke with current and former board members, a current employee and Ramirez, who no longer serves as the housing authority’s attorney.

The investigation revealed the then-chairman lacked understanding of federal procurement policies, which require making competitive hiring decisions and obtaining cost analyses.

“…The chairman of the board mistakenly believed that State rules allowed the Authority to list a professional services contract on the board agenda and approve it without competition,” the audit report reads.

The board initially approved advertising a request for proposals for legal services at a January 2014 special meeting where it also approved hiring Ramirez as an interim attorney.

However, investigators uncovered further issues in what it described as a “poorly written” contract that a “prudent person would not have accepted as a reasonable contract cost.”

The two-year contract, which “did not include interim language,” could be extended indefinitely on a month-to-month basis, contrary to HUD rules stating contracts be limited to five years.

Additionally, it allowed Ramirez to collect a $1,000 per month retainer, whether or not the WHA received legal services. Of the 48 months Ramirez served the WHA, the housing authority paid $21,000 in retainers for months it did not hold a regular meeting.

The contract also allowed Ramirez to bill for time spent attending special meetings, which occurred during 19 of the 21 months when no regular meetings were held.

Nor could the OIG find evidence that Ramirez had credited the WHA for time he had agreed to provide at no charge.

The OIG found the retainers to be “unreasonable or unnecessary costs,” saying the WHA paid for services it didn’t receive. However, Ramirez told investigators he had “provided more services than were covered by the monthly retainer but he did not have ‘hard files’ to support those costs.”

The OIG also concluded the $97,170 balance of attorney’s fees the housing authority paid Ramirez during his four-year tenure was “unsupported” and recommended HUD require the WHA repay that amount, as well as the retainer fees.

 

NEXT STEPS

Housing authority officials dispute the need to repay the entirety of the sum the OIG says it owes the government. As a result, the WHA requested absolution from repaying the $97,170, arguing it had received necessary legal services.

The housing authority does not dispute the $21,000 in retainer fees.

Current Chairman Johnny Bautista said the WHA hopes to meet with David Pohler, the director of the Office of Public Housing, who will make the final determination on what the housing authority must repay.

“At the end of the day … we’re going to need legal services regardless of who it may have been,” Bautista said Thursday.

He stressed that the WHA’s new leaders are committed to rectifying errors that occurred under previous leadership, reiterating that the investigation was spurred by the WHA’s own reporting the issue.

Weslaco Mayor David Suarez, too, spoke of the new leadership he appointed in the wake of a previous audit the OIG conducted in 2017 in which it found the WHA had paid “unsupported travel costs” for its employees and commissioners.

“I mean, this is a whole new board that I appointed,” Suarez said.

Bautista added the WHA took the initiative to correct its procurement errors before the OIG finalized its report, such as using the proper RFP process to hire its current attorney and making procurement training mandatory for commissioners and administrative staff.

Disclosure: The Mid-Valley Town Crier currently leases office space in Weslaco at 401 S. Kansas Ave. — a location that is managed by Weslaco Mayor David Suarez and Johnny Bautista, chairman of the WHA board of commissioners.