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Public housing perks aplenty

The former chairman of the city housing authority and two tenant-elected representatives retained by Mayor Byron W. Brown engaged in self-indulgent spending in recent years that siphoned off tens of thousands of dollars earmarked to house the city's poor, a Buffalo News investigation found.

The trio ran up cell phone bills of more than $12,000 the past two years, took 40 out-of-town business trips the past three years and accepted auto allowances of $900 a year even though two do not own cars.

The three Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority commissioners -- Chairman Sherrill Colston and tenant-elected representatives Aqiel Qadir and Mary Rogers -- also violated federal regulations and authority policies by failing to submit receipts to document much of the spending, including expenses paid for with authority-issued credit cards.

All together, commissioner perks cost almost $250,000 the past three years for what are supposed to be largely volunteer positions. This spending came while the authority cut staff and trimmed expenses, including the elimination of its police force. "Every dollar that was spent on commissioner perks was a dollar not spent on tenant well-being," said Stephen T. Banko III, head of the local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "In other communities, people serve on these boards because they want to serve. Here, it would appear they wanted to be served."

The News investigation follows a critical report HUD issued in December that concluded commissioners spent lavishly on themselves, micro-managed and intimidated staff, and failed to carry out basic duties.

That report prompted then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello to ask for their resignations for what he termed "egregious malfeasance." The three refused, and Brown said he did not ask them to step down prior to releasing an action plan Wednesday addressing many of the issues HUD raised. As mayor, Brown has the power to remove housing commissioners for reasons ranging from inefficiency to misconduct.

Colston resigned on his own volition Wednesday, and Brown appointed four commissioners, who are subject to Common Council approval. They will join Qadir, Rogers and Charlie Flynn, the other holdover.

The News investigation is based on authority financial records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act, HUD reports on the authority and interviews with commissioners and staff members.

The News found:

*Qadir, Rogers and Colston ran up cell phone bills of $12,240 the past two years. Qadir's come to $7,653 and ran as high as $711 per month. While Qadir and Rogers say most calls involved authority business, both made numerous calls to out-of-town relatives.

*The trio accounted for 40 of 47 business trips commissioners made from January 2003 to June 2005. Locales for conferences included Orlando, Fla., Phoenix and San Francisco -- some in the dead of winter. Qadir took 16 trips.

*Qadir, Rogers and Colston repeatedly failed to provide receipts to document their spending, in violation of federal regulations and board policies. In addition, Rogers violated authority policy by using her authority-issued credit card to make cash advances for personal use.

*Rogers continued to claim her adult children on the lease of the authority apartment after they moved out, allowing her to keep her $50 a month, three-bedroom apartment even though there is a long waiting list for those units. A staff review concluded Rogers committed fraud, but nothing came of the finding.

This is on top of health insurance that five of seven commissioners enjoyed, and dental and life insurance that all seven received at authority expense.

Commissioners said they are being unfairly targeted and note that HUD has continued to give the authority good grades in annual operating reviews.

Colston said board spending on itself "is normal, is reasonable."

Qadir said the board is doing a "hell of a job . . . We were demonized as a result of the [HUD] report, and I feel it is very unfair."

Rogers, once a strong voice for reform, defended the board's conduct but said that in retrospect, she should have questioned some of her actions.

"The voice should have been there, with my age, but it wasn't," she said.

>Granted selves perks

HUD has expressed misgivings about the housing authority board for years, dating to at least the early 1990s, when it criticized the qualifications of Mayor James D. Griffin's appointees, all of whom belonged to one of his political clubs.

HUD encouraged Masiello to appoint commissioners with better credentials when he took office in 1994, but he continued the practice of selecting mostly political supporters with little experience in public housing.

Masiello appointees forced the resignation of Executive Director Michael J. Clarke in 1995, despite what was widely regarded as his successful five-year tenure. Clarke was replaced by Sharon M. West, a protege of Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, in what was seen as political payback for Eve's support of Masiello for mayor.

The mayor appoints five of the authority's seven members -- the other two are elected by tenants. They oversee a $40 million-a-year operation involving about 275 employees and 7,000 low-income and elderly residents living in 25 developments.

Commissioners through the mid-1990s received a $2,000 annual stipend, per state law, an authority-issued credit card, per diem for local travel, and health and dental insurance.

HUD's inspector general found that compensation excessive. The report prompted a legal opinion by Gillian Brown, the authority's general counsel, informing commissioners they were entitled to only a stipend and reimbursement for local travel. If they wanted health insurance, they had to pay for it, he wrote.

"It seems clear that to comply with federal and state laws, the commissioners must adopt a new compensation schedule which allows only travel and salary," Brown advised.

The board ignored the opinion and struck deals with Masiello and the Common Council to have the city pay for the insurance.

Commissioners granted themselves additional perks, beginning with cell phones in 1996. The practice, over time, saw Colston, as chairman, and Qadir and Rogers get cell phones and other commissioners a $25 monthly stipend, although not all took it.

Commissioners then went to West in 1999, saying they wanted laptop computers. She ran the request past federal officials.

"HUD said no, but they told me to do it anyway," West said of the board. "They felt they needed them to do their job."

So, in 2000, each commissioner, at a cost of $2,995, got his or her own laptop. Free Internet service was provided as well.

Next came an auto allowance in 2004. Commissioners received $75 a month, including Rogers and Qadir, who don't own cars.

There was an escalation in travel for commissioners, starting in the late 1990s. Previously, commissioners were limited to a couple of trips a year, but that grew after HUD relaxed reporting requirements. Spending on travel exploded by 2003, when Qadir took seven trips, and Colston, six.

West, in an interview, said she attempted to rein in commissioner spending, but she said she could go only so far.

"I was their employee," she said.

Others, however, said that West often acquiesced, part of a strategy to keep a majority of board members on her side.

"As long as commissioners could go on their monthly vacation, she'd have four votes," said Flynn, who frequently clashed with the majority.

>Costly benefits

Health, dental and life insurance, along with travel, were the big-ticket items.

Buffalo was the only housing authority in the state to provide health insurance to commissioners, and the practice came under increasing criticism in recent years. City officials finally balked at underwriting the bill and coverage ceased last July, when it had climbed to $41,043 for the preceding year.

Not all commissioners took the health insurance. Matthew Brown didn't because he got it through his job as Masiello's press spokesman. Also passing was Commissioner Dennis Dargavel, a real estate salesman, whose term expired last fall.

All seven commissioners took dental and life insurance, including Dr. Robert A. Gianadda, a dentist, who resigned last fall. The coverage ran almost $1,000 a commissioner, but not all used it.

Colston, a board member for 15 years, expressed surprise when told that he had dental insurance through the authority.

"I didn't know I had dental insurance. I never used it," he said.

Gillian Brown, the general counsel, said some commissioners, Colston in particular, were upset when the city cut funding.

"Commissioners made it very clear to me they were unhappy at the prospect of losing their health insurance, and they encouraged me to investigate every avenue for preserving it," Brown said.

Commissioners lost coverage on June 30 last year.

While four commissioners generally showed restraint when it came to the other perks, The News investigation found Qadir, Rogers and Colston used them all, frequently spending to excess and failing to turn in receipts.

Qadir was the biggest spender of the three. His cell phone bills came to $7,165 the past two years, an average of $312 a month. The biggest bill was $711 last August, when he spoke on the phone for an average of 3 hours and 25 minutes a day.

Qadir estimated that 85 percent of his calls related to authority business, mostly conversations with tenants.

"My role of a commissioner is somewhat of a social worker. I make myself accessible 24 hours a day," Qadir said.

Records show most of Qadir's calls involve authority business, but he also makes a fair number of personal calls.

The Buffalo News obtained cell phone bills of commissioners for 2004 and 2005 and found that last year, Qadir made and received 65 calls from a son in North Carolina, 134 involving a son in Maryland and 101 involving a woman who described herself as Qadir's spiritual adviser in East Orange, N.J.

Rogers rang up a cell phone bill of $2,820, or $123 per month, the past two years. Like Colston, her bills stayed within the plan's base cost of $89 a month for most of 2004 and 2005 until skyrocketing the second half of last year.

Colston attributed his higher costs to a spike in calls related to the authority's search for an executive director to succeed West, who resigned last February.

Rogers' explanation: She turned off telephone service to her apartment last August and relied on her authority cell phone until restoring service last month.

A News check of her calling activity showed a number of calls to her daughter in Tennessee. Last August alone, the month Rogers shut off phone service to her apartment, she made 55 cell phone calls to the daughter. They were among the 367 she made and received last year.

Qadir, Rogers and Colston also refused to switch carriers in 2003 after the authority found a less-expensive vendor, West said.

Qadir and Rogers said they were unaware that their cell phone use cost the authority so much money until HUD issued its preliminary report in November.

"I just found out recently there was a problem," Rogers said. "I've never seen a copy of bills."

West, however, said she sent commissioners copies of their phone bills, and The News obtained copies of memos sent to Qadir and Rogers in 2003 and 2004, informing them that their bills were high and requesting the commissioners to reimburse the authority for the overcharges.

The board, instead, at West's recommendation, voted to absorb the costs in February 2005. Qadir owed $2,509, Colston $655 and Rogers $370 -- and they weren't the only ones whose bills the authority did not press payment.

Some $6,950 was written off on the cell phone bills of 28 employees and board members, including senior staff and Commissioners Gianadda and Flynn.

Mayor Brown, in his action plan last week, called for commissioners to turn in their cell phones and credit cards, although it will take a vote of the reconstituted board to enforce.

>Frequent travel

Qadir, Rogers and Colston also pushed the envelope with travel.

Commissioners stepped up their travel to out-of-town conferences and training sessions in the late 1990s, after HUD relaxed reporting requirements. Until then, commissioners were generally limited to two trips a year.

The authority picked up virtually all costs, including air fare, hotel, meals and registration fees. Authority records show expenses averaged about $1,500 per trip per commissioner in recent years.

The News reviewed travel records from January 2003 to June 2005, when funding for commissioner travel was taken from the authority's budget, following criticism from city officials and the control board.

Two commissioners, Gianadda and Matthew Brown, did not travel to out-of-town conferences during that 30-month period. Commissioner Dargavel took three trips, and Flynn took four.

Qadir's 16 trips average one every other month. The five commissioners who traveled in 2003-05 attended 17 different conferences and training sessions. Qadir went to all but one. In September 2003, he attended two conferences in a three-week period, first in Washington, D.C., and then Orlando, Fla.

Rogers and Colston attended 12 conferences each during this period, an average of one every 2 1/2 months.

"It wasn't fun," said Rogers, describing long days of meetings.

"The travel I did I never considered a perk. It was necessary," Qadir said. "The purpose was so that I could learn, share information with other commissioners, staff and residents."

Commissioners also failed to account for their spending.

In the face of criticism from independent auditors and the control board, West amended the authority travel policy in November 2003 to require all employees, including commissioners, to provide receipts and return unspent funds from advances.

Commissioners ignored it and never returned money.

"Nobody turned in receipts," Rogers said.

Colston said turning in receipts was "cumbersome" and involved "a lot of paper."

Problems went beyond travel.

West said she advised Rogers to keep receipts when the auto allowance was established because the commissioner did not own a car. Rogers and Qadir said they used the allowance to pay for cabs and gas for others who transported them on authority business. But they didn't keep receipts.

Qadir, Rogers and Colston usually did not turn in receipts for purchases made with authority-issued credit cards. The News identified more than $2,000 in purchases by the three in 2004 and 2005 for which the authority staff could not produce receipts.

The News subsequently determined most of the spending was on legitimate authority business.

However, Rogers used her authority credit card to make eight cash advances totaling $1,960 in 2004 and 2005, in violation of authority policy. She reimbursed the authority, staff said.

>Fraud accusation

Rogers has lived in public housing since 1972. She raised her two children there, but when they moved out more than 20 years ago, she continued to list them on as occupants, allowing her to keep her three-bedroom apartment.

Regulations required her to move to a one-bedroom unit once her children moved out. There's a three-year waiting list for families seeking a three-bedroom apartment at the complex.

It shouldn't have been difficult for the authority to determine that Rogers' children moved out. Her son, Darwin, works for the authority, and payroll records show where he lives. Rogers not only reported her daughter as living with her, but as the person to contact in case of an emergency -- at an out-of-state address and phone number.

The authority staff, acting on a complaint, investigated Roger's living circumstances last year. In a July 2005 report, senior manager James Nagowski detailed inaccuracies in Roger's file.

"The improper record keeping began in 1983," Nagowski reported. "The complaint of fraud is evident in the documents in Mrs. Rogers' files."

Rogers offered varying reasons for the discrepancies.

She first said she kept her children on the lease because of health problems in 2001 and wanted them to be able to move back if she needed help. Rogers later said she continued to list them out of habit.

"I wasn't even thinking about it. It was just something I did. I wasn't trying to hurt the housing authority," she said.

e-mail: jheaney@buffnews.com and dswilliams@buffnews.com

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