The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority's travel to conferences has attracted attention from the head of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, who is asking the agency for documentation on its travel and other spending.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote to the BMHA as well as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, questioning the use of taxpayer money for the travel over the past four years.
"While I appreciate that housing authority administrators want to ensure that they have the proper training, I am much more concerned that taxpayer dollars are being spent on trips and excessive fees rather than on the programs themselves," Grassley, the Judiciary Committee chairman, wrote in a letter dated and emailed March 8.
Grassley also questioned the amount of time BMHA Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett spends attending conferences and other out-of-town meetings.
"These trips have amounted to hundreds of man hours spent away from the office and not serving the citizens of Buffalo," Grassley wrote. "I believe that having an executive director gone an average of two additional months per year is a strain on the housing authority."
Grassley's comments are in response to a Buffalo News report last month detailing $120,000 in travel costs from 2013 through 2016 by Buffalo Housing Authority officials, employees and tenant leaders. The News analysis also found Sanders-Garrett was out of town for all or part of 158 days over those four years in connection with her travel to 34 conferences and related meetings. The 158 days includes weekends as well as weekdays, and also includes some extra days Sanders-Garrett spent in or near a conference city – on her own time, and at her own expense.
BMHA officials Friday acknowledged receiving Grassley's letter.
"We have already begun to gather the requested documents and will fully comply with his request," Sanders-Garrett said in a prepared statement.
A HUD spokesman said his agency also received Grassley's letter and will respond to the senator soon. The letter went to HUD Secretary Ben Carson with a copy sent to the HUD inspector general's office. HUD is the Buffalo housing agency's overseer.
Grassley has been concerned about housing authority spending practices across the nation as well as what he views as inadequate oversight by HUD ever since 2011, when questions were raised about the Philadelphia housing authority, according to Jill Gerber, a Grassley spokeswoman.
Since then, when Grassley's staff learns of media reports on housing authorities, those reports are forwarded to the senator, Gerber said. That's how he learned about the BMHA travel, she said.
"A lot do a good job, but because there's not much oversight at the federal level, those housing authorities that spend excessively or have misplaced priorities don't necessarily get the scrutiny they deserve," Gerber said, describing Grassley's view of public housing authorities.
Grassley in recent years has written letters to other housing authorities similar to the one sent to the BMHA, but got little support from the Obama administration, she said. Grassley is hoping that will change with a Republican administration, Gerber said.
"He's written a lot of similar letters to local housing authorities and HUD, and he was somewhat stonewalled by the Obama administration. It was hard to get attention to a lot of these problems," she said. "With the start of the new administration, he is hoping there will be a change in approach."
"His point," she added, "is we are spending billions to help people in need and need to make sure it's done to the best of our ability. It seems HUD is good at writing checks and that's it. Oversight seems to be lacking."
In his letter to the BMHA, Grassley asked for the following information, by March 24:
- Details, including costs, on all conferences BMHA staff and board members have attended.
- Payroll information on all BMHA employees as well as a copy of the executive director's employment contract.
- Documentation on legal bills and professional services and consulting fees paid by the BMHA.
- Any conflict-of-interest waivers.
- Documentation of BMHA credit cards.
- A list of BMHA take-home vehicles and to whom they are assigned.
The News analysis of BMHA travel found Sanders-Garrett, the agency's executive director, took 34 trips – almost all to conferences or meetings sponsored by five different industry groups – from Jan. 1, 2013, through Dec. 31, 2016.
Sanders-Garrett has defended her travel, saying she is doing work on behalf of the BMHA and all housing authorities when attending these public housing industry meetings. She also said she has helped secure additional funding for the BMHA and that she remains in contact with the BMHA at all times while she is gone.
But some tenant leaders criticized her travel schedule, saying the frequent absences contribute to a lack of direction at the troubled authority and that residents suffer as a result. The BMHA provides housing for about 10,000 people.
The BMHA spent $27,000 on Sanders-Garrett's travel over the four years, The News analysis found.
Sanders-Garrett told The News she is cognizant of travel costs and doesn't use HUD funds to pay for her own travel. Instead, she said, she uses BMHA money coming from other sources, such as fees collected for an advertising sign on housing authority property. HUD funds are used for other BMHA travelers, she said.
The News analysis also found the cost of Sanders-Garrett's travel was kept down, in part, because one of the sponsoring organizations picks up all of her travel costs to its meetings. That organization is HAI Group, a public housing insurance organization created by public housing agencies throughout the country. Sanders-Garrett is one of about 150 committee members who help the organization set policy during its sessions. HAI Group picks up travel and related costs of its committee members.
The News analysis found Sanders-Garrett reduced her spending in about half a dozen other instances over the four-year period reviewed by sharing lodging costs while at conferences. Sanders-Garrett’s husband, Tyrone Garrett, a housing authority executive director in New Jersey, sometimes attends the same conferences as Sanders-Garrett.
“When there is an opportunity to share or reduce costs, that is what we do,” she said.
The Buffalo News analysis found that while Sanders-Garrett is the BMHA's most frequent traveler, she is not the only one travelling to conferences and meetings on behalf of the agency.
In addition to her 34 trips, others affiliated with the BMHA took a total of 81 trips – costing about $93,000 – from 2013 through 2016.
Modesto Candelario, the BMHA's assistant executive director, took 20 trips over the four years, and about half were to conferences or meetings that Sanders-Garrett also attended, the News analysis found.
Sanders-Garrett said she and Candelario try to avoid being gone at the same time, but acknowledged that sometimes their trips do overlap.
Much of Candelario's travel is to sessions sponsored by the HAI Group, the BMHA's insurance organization. The HAI also picked up virtually all of Candelario's travel costs to those sessions.
The cost of Candelario's other travelling to the BMHA was about $15,000.
Anthony Laulette, a BMHA manager, attended 15 out-of-town meetings and conferences, with a total cost of almost $30,000. Part of his expenses were for classes, as he was being trained for a bigger role at the BMHA.
Housing authority commissioners have also traveled on behalf of the BMHA. Three commissioners attended a conference in New Orleans in 2016. Four went to a commissioners training session in Tampa, also in 2016. The total cost of those two trips was just over $10,600.
The travel comes as HUD has labeled the BMHA a "substandard" housing authority for three consecutive years.
Sanders-Garrett blames federal funding cuts for most of the problems facing the BMHA.
Housing officials throughout the country are concerned that they will be facing steeper cuts during the Trump administration, given the president's stated goal of cutting domestic spending by $54 billion in order to increase defense spending.