On the house

On the house

Beaumont Independent School District spokesperson Jessie Haynes, who earned about $90,500 in 2007, may have misled a charitable group in Hardin County to obtain Hurricane Rita assistance for a house she owns at 2629 North St. in Beaumont, and records obtained by The Examiner during its eight-month investigation reveal she didn’t want it known she was applying for assistance to begin with.

Although Haynes’ signed an application for assistance stating the information she provided was “true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief,” a copy of the application from the Hardin County Disaster Recovery Alliance (HCDRA) revealed she claimed her monthly income in 2007 was $3,771 or $45,252 annually – half of what she made that year at BISD. Even if she mistakenly used the $70,345 salary she was being paid in 2005 from the Port Arthur Independent School District, it would not have kept her from obtaining assistance because there was no low-income requirement for the program. But questions have been raised about her application.

Additionally, Haynes made a handwritten notation on her application that she wasn’t even living at the house on North Street when Hurricane Rita hit Southeast Texas but at another home she owned in Beaumont. She also wrote that she didn’t want the city of Beaumont or Jefferson County to have access to her application for assistance.

The notation stated, “While I am embarrassed to have to ask for help, I do not want it to be too public. Don’t want my situation to become general public information and don’t trust these (city of Beaumont and Jefferson County) to keep it private.”

According to the file containing Haynes’ application and a detailed list of the work done to her home, the construction cost to the house she owned was $15,165. For that, contractors replaced Haynes’ roof, replaced the front door threshold, replaced seven broken window panes, repaired a wooden vent, replaced two window sills, replaced approximately 105 siding boards, rebuilt her back porch, fixed sheetrock and painted in her dining room, repaired cracks in the walls and ceiling and repaired damage under a window.

Both Penland and Davis explained that while some of the damage was not caused by the hurricane, regulations require it to be replaced or repaired if it is something that is related to the repairs being done. For example, if water causes the floor boards to buckle or the house has to be leveled because it shifted on its piers but the beams underneath are rotted because of a lack of maintenance, they still must be fixed and are covered under the grant program.

Pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act, The Examiner requested a copy of Haynes’ application and all other relevant information from the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission (SETRPC) and the HCDRA. While most of the information was immediately provided by SETRPC, the application with Haynes’ salary information and the personal notations made by Haynes was withheld by the HCDRA. Not being familiar with public information laws regarding the agency’s responsibility and wanting to ensure it didn’t do anything improper, the HCDRA’s attorney and the newspaper discussed how the agency needed to refer the matter to the Texas Attorney General for a ruling on whether the application was public. After several months the attorney general ruled in favor of the newspaper and the documents were provided to The Examiner.Joe Penland, HCDRA president, said his agency’s goal was always to help those people affected by the storm and the four-member board of directors trusted the information being submitted was true and accurate.

The Examiner has made at least a dozen attempts to obtain a comment from Haynes about the documents and the information she put on the application for assistance. She has repeatedly refused to answer any questions about the HCDRA, the renovations to her home or the information she put on the application for assistance. The most recent attempt for comment was made on Wednesday, March 2, at her office.

Penland said it wouldn’t surprise him that some information on applications for assistance was misleading but he did not speak directly on Haynes’ application in that manner.He said there was no requirement for low income in order to receive assistance, so the HCDRA never tried to verify that information for eligibility.

“All we did was try to follow the rules. Did we follow them 100 percent? I think we did,” Peland said. “Did we make any mistakes? Probably some. Was anything intentional? Hell no. Did we go out and validate anyone’s salary? No. We got them to sign something, get it notarized like an affidavit and we took people on face value.”

Shaun Davis, SETRPC executive director, confirmed the lack of an income requirement for the program, as well.

“This was federal money that flowed from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission,” said Davis. “It is important to note that these SSBG (Social Service Block Grant) dollars are not HUD (Housing and Urban Development) dollars and not all of their dollars have a low to moderate income (LMI) requirement. That funding (for the HCDRA) did not have an LMI component.” The SETRPC was the go-between for the state and HCDRA for $5 million in disaster assistance, Davis explained. He said the HCDRA provided the necessary and proper paperwork to receive the money and the agency provided assistance to residents throughout Southeast Texas.

However, according to its not-for-profit tax records, the purpose of the HCDRA is “to assist the elderly, disabled and poor with coordinated long-term recovery relief to the victims of disasters or catastrophes.”

Additionally, a second document obtained from the SETRPC states, “Hardin County Disaster Recovery Alliance, Inc. is a faith-based non-profit organization formed after Hurricane Rita to address the needs of Hardin County relative to repair storm damaged homes for those individuals that do not have the means, neither insurance, nor further federal funding to accomplish such repairs. The labor costs will be offset by volunteers.”

According to Davis, he intends to review the information in Haynes application and discuss it with the HCDRA. He also said he would refer it to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

“It is important to note that the regional planning commission is not an investigative agency but obviously if things come to our attention that documents were either misrepresented or in your words, falsified, then we would be obligated to pass those back to our contractor, the entity receiving the funds and ask for a response,” Davis said. “This is what was presented to HCDRA, and in these programs, you have to count on official documentation to determine the information you are receiving is true and correct.”

Another question asked, since income was not a requirement, was when the income was supposedly earned – at the time of application or the time of disaster. Penland was unsure of the answer but Davis said he didn’t know the HCDRA’s intention but that was the way SETRPC deals with the issue.

“That is the way it is for all federal programs,” Davis said. “We often have to recertify people because someone might get a job and go above the limit so they would not be eligible for a program. So many different things can happen because of time. It is your eligibility at the time you start construction. I don’t know what HCDRA’s eligibility process was but for our federal dollars, it is the income at the time construction begins.”

Penland said the goal of the HCDRA was to help those in need throughout Southeast Texas. He said originally the group tried to only help those in Hardin County but they quickly learned contractors weren’t available and the HCDRA was on about a six-month timeline to spend the $5 million it received for disaster recovery.

“We had plenty of homes to go to; we just didn’t have enough to get it done,” Penland said.