Leg. auditor slams Opelousas' housing authority

by Leslie Turk

The new executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Opelousas says it could take years to clean up the mess former ED Walter Guillory and his board left behind.

The new executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Opelousas says it could take years to clean up the mess former ED Walter Guillory and his board left behind.

Like it did for the Lafayette Housing Authority, releasing its findings in January, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor reviewed a number of transactions and activities of the HACO under former director Walter Guillory's stewardship as part of a compliance audit. And it ain't pretty.

"I'm having a hard time just digesting these figures," says Joe Ann Tyler, who took over the troubled agency in November 2009, after Guillory - who'd been double dipping as the LHA's top official - left the Opelousas agency. "It may have taken three or four years to get into this, and it may take us three or four years to get out of it."

As they did for Lafayette, the legislative auditors call into question the legality of Guillory serving as ED of both agencies, bringing down about $242,000 in salary and benefits. In Opelousas he used a housing rental unit as his office, auditors found, making it unavailable for rental. Particularly troubling for Guillory, who was ED in Opelousas from December 2005 until November 2009, is that he actually resigned in Aug. 1, 2009, but then entered into a consulting agreement with the Opelousas agency. According to the consulting contract, Guillory was to receive $55,000 per year for four years.

Guillory's company, Housing Consultants LLC, was paid $43,867 for what his attorney, Frank Dawkins, describes as a severance package. The contract, however, had no provision for a severance payout.

When he resigned, Guillory was in the second year of a five-year contract; the contract included no provision for severance but did require a 45-day written notification to the board of the ED's intention to terminate the contract (Guillory provided that written notice on June 11, 2009). The $43,867 payment is a violation of the Louisiana Ethics Code and may also be a violation of the state constitution because the contract did not call for severance, the auditors note: "Because Mr. Guillory contracted with his former agency within two years following his resignation, Mr. Guillory may have violated state law." (It's a similar post-employment provision that should have prevented consultant Greg Gachassin from working on low-income housing projects involving the Lafayette Public Trust Finance Authority after he left the board in late 2009; read "How Gachassin Games the System" here.)

Particularly disturbing in the auditor's findings is the HACO's defunct home-ownership program. The program was created in anticipation of receiving low-income housing tax credits from the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, yet those tax credits were never awarded. The HACO borrowed $144,000 (through a bank line of credit rather than obtain Louisiana Bond Commission approval) to buy 10 acres of land from Daniel and Lisa Mistric Jr. and for other expenses related to the development. In total, the housing authority spent $213,744 on the failed project - $88,000 for the land, $52,409 in development costs and $73,335 to a consultant. The HACO contracted with Vital Communications to develop and publicize what was called a "Pilot Program for Homeownership," paying it $73,335 in monthly installments from December 2006 to October 2009. An addendum to one of the two contracts with Vital indicates one was implemented retroactively, the auditors point out. Vital Communications, like Guillory, used a housing rental unit as its office - both times without HUD's approval.

The only information The Independent was able to obtain on Vital Communications is that it is located at 708 Evergreen Lane in Opelousas and also has done business as La Bonne Vie LLC; neither is registered with the Secretary of State. Its contact person is Tibberly G. Richard, whom state records indicate is director of the Louisiana Institute on Poverty Initiative and is president of the St. Landry Public Assistance Corp., two non-profits.

Like most other contracts the auditors reviewed, there was no competitive process involved in Vital's contract. Also, auditors discovered that many contract employees were hired without written contracts.

Other key findings involved the HACO's failed attempt to organize its own police force, buying five 2009 Dodge Chargers for $103,515 and spending another $127,558 for equipment. The state auditors also delved deeper into the band debacle uncovered by an independent audit of the agency, in which the HACO spent $88,000 to create a community band and another $36,495 on musical instruments and $3,800 on a bus. Again, none of these purchases or the contracts to hire band development program employees, who were paid $10-$30 per hour, was competitively bid. To date, 71 musical instruments remain missing from the defunct program.

"I think they just lost perspective," Tyler says of Guillory and his board. "Their priorities were not in place."

Two HACO board members who were present during Guillory's tenure, Mary Doucet and Linda Prudhomme, are still on the board. Three others are new. Read the full report here.