A June 18 meeting of the Port Arthur Housing Authority ended with little discussion pertaining to the event’s stated intention – to allow PAHA Executive Director Seladonio “Cele” Quesada to hire temporary employees – but commissioners did make plans to continue a conversation on the possibility of letting another employee go.
Quesada presented the PAHA board commissioners with a proposal for two new temporary contract employees – both needed assets, according to commissioner Farhana Swati. One addition to the PAHA payroll will be a financial analyst to oversee the financial director and the assistant accountant; the second is an operations analyst. Both employees’ stay with PAHA will be brief, based on the initial contracts, which are only for three months each.
“The financial analyst will see where improvements need to be made due to our most recent OIG report,” Swati said, referring to an audit released from the HUD Office of the Inspector General on June 1 that detailed significant deficiencies and financial mismanagement at the housing authority, “basically telling our financial director how to do their job correctly.”
The operations analyst will perform a broader function, as the board commissioner understands it, by “coming in and looking at Cele Quesada’s job, looking at the way we’re submitting our applications, overhauling our procurement policies, and working to see how to run the agency more efficiently.” Swati said the addition of the operations analyst is a great benefit, albeit long overdue to PAHA, and it is the intention of the board for the new hires to help bring the troubled housing authority back into compliance.
“We lack in operations and our accounting department has never been in line with our operations,” Swati said, before deferring to a brighter future outlook. “I do think we’ll definitely be in better shape with these additions, but we can’t go back and undo the money we’ve lost; of course the credibility we lost will still be gone, but we have to work to get that back.
“I think the commissioners need to be more proactive,” Swati offered as a chief component of getting PAHA back into the good graces of both HUD and the Jefferson County community. “As long as the commissioners continue to ask questions in the meetings and request as much information as possible to make decisions – question and hold our executive director accountable – then we can honestly say we’re doing our job.”
Swati, who has been a member of the board for less than a year, said she had been questioning many of the same problems outlined in OIG auditor’s June report during open meetings prior to the audit’s release.
“Sometimes I would get answers, other times nothing. Just like the OIG auditor, I would sometimes not get what I asked for from (the executive director) and sometimes I would have to ask several times to get it,” she said. “Just like (the auditor), I think I didn’t get the information sometimes because it just didn’t exist to begin with.”
Still, she questioned Quesada further. She also reached out to HUD regional director Dan Rodriguez, who has been offering support for Swati and PAHA.
“I was concerned because from the time I was appointed to the board I saw the letters coming in from HUD and the OIG saying we weren’t operating efficiently enough,” she said. “We can’t let (Quesada) tell us everything is hunky-dory when we see the letters and know everything is not OK.”
And the minus
“I would like the board to review the relationship we have with Cohen & Grigsby (law firm)”, Swati told her fellow group of PAHA commissioners following an executive session meeting of the board. The Cohen & Grigsby law firm was retained prior to Swati’s appointment to the board, secured for the express purpose of sorting out the allegations HUD/OIG investigators have been noting on PAHA for the last several years and organizing the authority’s tax credit properties. “I think someone with more experience could better represent the Port Arthur Housing Authority concerning the audit.
“Why are we looking for someone out of Phoenix anyway? I think we need someone more local and, more importantly, someone with more experience,” Swati said.
Furthermore, she said, she would like to know how much the law firm is costing the housing authority since she has yet to receive any information answering that query.
“I’ve not seen their contract,” she said. “I want to look at their invoices, what we pay them. …
“These are questions that should be readily answered for (the board), but I still can’t tell you how they are paid or where the money to pay them comes from – although I have tried to find out.”
A call to Cohen & Grigsby law firm affordable housing attorney Michael Syme in Phoenix was not returned for comment. The firm’s Web site, however, boasts the agency is a “Best Law Firm” due to their exceptional level of “Talent. Expertise. Performance.”
The Cohen & Grigsby firm runs on a campaign to “make it a priority to know and understand your business so that we can serve you not only as legal advisors but as strategic business counselors — allowing you to optimize your opportunities and mitigate your risk.”
Although the Web promises a brilliant working relationship between clients and the firm’s 130-plus attorneys, Swati is not convinced out-of-state legal representation is in the best interest of the housing authority.
“We still have some of the same compliance issues year after year,” she explained. “We need someone to help us address the problems and keep them from happening over and over again.”
The PAHA Board of Commissioners has yet to set a date for the group to ponder their legal representation. Conflicting schedules have been a hindrance since all the members want to be in attendance for the meeting, she said, but the open forum meeting is anticipated to occur within the next couple weeks. In the interim, PAHA has set another open meeting – this one to hear from executive director Quesada an answer to allegations of wrongdoing and mismanagement outlined in the most recently released HUD/OIG audit.
“He needs to answer things like ‘How did we get to the position we’re in?’” Swati asserted. “When HUD comes in, the executive director doesn’t speak, his attorneys speak. So, we really haven’t heard from him what he has to say about this – but we need to.”Quesada is expected to answer Swati’s questions and more during a meeting to be held at the PAHA administration building at 920 Dequeen in Port Arthur on Friday, July 6, according to Swati. A time will be posted as the date nears.
Jennifer Johnson can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 231, or by e-mail at jennifer [at] theexaminer [dot] com.