FORT LAUDERDALE – In the latest shakeup at New Visions Community Development Corp., a member of the board of directors has been banned from all board meetings and stripped of his duties after admitting he had a romantic relationship with the agency’s embattled executive director.
Citing a possible conflict, the board, during its regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 21, voted to temporarily banish fellow member Eugene Simmons from meetings and all official functions of the agency.
Simmons has acknowledged his relationship with Jacqueline Tufts, the agency’s executive director, who was suspended without pay and escorted from her office earlier this month amid allegations that she used the affordable housing program she oversees to build herself a house. The house was built and expanded with discounts intended for low- to moderate-income home buyers.
Simmons, who works for Miami-based City National Bank, was the designee of the bank on the New Visions board, and is the owner of ENS Consulting Services. He did not return repeated calls, or respond to emails seeking comment.
Simmons, who has generated mortgages for New Visions clients, had no involvement in Tufts’ mortgage.
This latest development comes less than two weeks after New Visions received notice that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suspended its funding to the program through an affiliate contractor, Mission of Peace National Corp. of Flint, Michigan pending the findings of an audit HUD is conducting of New Visions’ finances.
Mission of Peace is a faith-based, non-profit organization that administers foreclosure and homeownership counseling under contract with HUD to a number of partner organizations nationwide.
New Visions board members have also hired a Southfield, Mi. firm, Ask Development Solutions, Inc., to conduct a forensic audit and to investigate the agency’s financial transactions, as well as Tufts’ home construction.
“Eugene [Simmons] was not removed,” said board member Pamelia Harris, who has been designated to oversee some of the agency’s day-to-day functions in the absence of an executive director. “He was asked not to sit in on any further meetings, and he cannot vote on any business or participate in
New Visions functions until the audit and investigation are completed.’’
Harris said Simmons expressed disappointment about the board’s decision, and abruptly left the meeting.
Board members say they also have discovered what they believe is an agency bank account, and they say Tufts did not inform them about the account’s existence. When they learned about the bank account, they escorted Tufts from her office at 950 NW 11th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale and suspended her without pay on Jan. 14 from her $70,000-a-year job.
The suspension came after HUD received a complaint from a former New Visions employee alleging the possibility of improper use of funds designated to counsel homeowners on how to avoid foreclosure.
“We have not determined if there is a separate bank account or not, or if there is anything improper that has taken place, but the board was not aware of the account and there are some questions, which we hope will be addressed by the audit and the investigation,” Harris said.
“At this point we’re just trying to make certain that we are aware of all transactions that came through New Visions, and that they were appropriate,” she said.
Discounted home construction
As executive director, Tufts formulated and set the final prices for all homes constructed or purchased through New Visions. The South Florida Times began investigating the matter after Shawanda Small, a 40-year-old single mother of two who utilized New Visions to purchase her home at a cost of $232,000, questioned the $16,000 discount Tufts set for her own home, even though the homes are identical, at least on paper. Small did not receive the discount for her home.
The homes are located next door to each other in the Sweeting Estates neighborhood south of Sistrunk Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Both homes were built by HBR Developers, a company under contract with New Visions to build homes, at a cost of $170,000 each.
An additional den, a covered patio and structural changes were added to the first floor of Tufts’ home. Also, an enlarged master bedroom and bath, as well as a reconfigured floor plan and roof changes were completed on the second level during construction, all at a discount usually reserved for agency clients who needed help in purchasing their homes.
Questions on fence construction
The agency is now also investigating an application for permits that Tufts filed to build a fence around her home.
Tufts applied for the permits through New Visions on Oct. 21, 2008. The permits were for construction of several hundred feet of 6-foot high, ornamental fencing that encircles the home.
The fence permits were issued to Sweeting Associates, LLC, which is a wholly owned affiliate corporation of New Visions, and which provided the land on which Tufts’ home is built.
The construction work on the fence began in October; the actual permit was issued on Jan. 8, 2009, and remains outstanding pending final inspections.
The fence work is estimated at $950 on the permit application. The final cost will be tallied when the work is completed. It is unclear whether Tufts received a discount for the fence work.
“We were not aware of this until you [South Florida Times] brought it to our attention. I have turned over a copy of the permit application and the other documents to our board chairperson and the investigator, to determine exactly what has taken place and how it all was paid for,” Harris said after looking over the fence blueprints and documents.
Tufts has not responded to emails seeking comment about how she paid for the fence. No one answered the door at her home this week. She has retained an attorney, who has been in contact with New Visions about her employment status.
“We have received a letter from her attorney, but we are focusing on the audit and the investigation to see what has taken place,” Harris said.
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Jacqueline Tufts