FORT LAUDERDALE _ State prosecutors are seeking to determine whether the city of Fort Lauderdale illegally used funds set aside for hurricane recovery to repair or replace properties that were not, in fact, damaged by a hurricane.
The preliminary inquiry will allow prosecutors an opportunity to determine if a formal criminal investigation is warranted, the South Florida Times has learned.
“No one has asked for an investigation,” Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for the Broward State Attorney’s Office, said in an email this week. “Tim [Donnelly, head of the agency’s Special Investigations Unit] says we’ll touch base with the state and the city, and see if they can provide us with their audits and findings to see if we should open up a formal investigation.’’
City Manager George Gretsas did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.
Mayor Jim Naugle, however, weighed in on the issue.
“I welcome the review, but I’m not in a position to comment,” Naugle said. “Previously I had raised the idea of why, in these tight budget times, should the city have two housing agencies. I think it could be another indication that consolidating them and contracting with the city’s Housing Authority to administer one program should be explored.’’
The prosecutors’ inquiry comes several weeks after a March 14 South Florida Times report revealed that $11,777.60 in state disaster recovery funds were improperly used to offset home replacement costs associated with the family of Henry and Andrea Bonner.
The Bonners are participants in the city’s Substantial Rehabilitation/Replacement Housing Program, which tore down the family’s dilapidated home with the intention of replacing it with a new house.
The city and the Bonners are working to hash out details of the house replacement after city commissioners last week approved the new home construction.
Ryan Orlando, a spokesman for the Florida Housing Finance Corporation – a state agency that helps Floridians obtain safe, decent housing that might otherwise be unavailable to them – said the city improperly used hurricane funding by claiming the money was being used for hurricane damage. In fact, Orlando said, the city used the money to pay rent on the Bonners’ temporary home, as the family awaited the new home construction.
The state agency ordered the city to repay the funds, but the matter was not referred for any criminal review. The program now will also have to undergo further scrutiny, which may have an impact on other participants in the program.
The Bonners say – and city documents confirm – that the damage to their old house did not come from a hurricane.
“We did not, and still do not, know anything about any hurricane damage to our home,” Henry Bonner said. “The house was empty when the hurricane hit, and I know we never asked or applied for it, and whoever did, just lied, because our home was not damaged by any storm.’’
Pictured above is Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, whose office is looking into allegations that the city of Fort Lauderdale illegally used state hurricane repair funds.