On the heels of a phone conversation City-Parish President Joey Durel had with the top official at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week, to discuss problems with the Lafayette Housing Authority, comes confirmation that the Office of Inspector General for HUD is paying a visit to the Lafayette Housing Authority.

Last week Durel said his conference call with HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan also included other high level HUD officials, as well as representatives from HUD in New Orleans. “I just wish we’d have had that conversation six weeks ago,” Durel said. “We were talking more about management, management possibilities,” he added. The phone conference was set up by U.S. Sen. David Vitter to discuss potential remedies to a series of troubling audits of the LHA — poor management and potential fraud problems that date back several years. A blistering 2009 audit led to a federal investigation of the housing authority.

Durel said that during last week’s conversation there was no discussion of the OIG coming to Lafayette this week. “I had heard the OIG would be here soon, and my first reaction was, ‘You mean they are not here already?’”

According to HUD’s website, the OIG’s mission is “independent and objective reporting to the Secretary and the Congress for the purpose of bringing about positive change in the integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness of HUD operations.” Its Office of Investigation is the law enforcement component of the department, with special agents who have experience in conducting investigations in all programs of the department, including tenant and public housing authority fraud, waste, and abuse.

The Independent Weekly has confirmed, through various sources close to the investigation of the LHA, that the inspector general for HUD has been working with the FBI for some time.

The nature of the inspector general’s visit to the LHA this week, however, remains unclear. LHA Executive Director Walter Guillory did not respond to an email seeking comment, but an LHA official did confirm via email that OIG reps would be in the office today.

After this story was published online, LHA board member Donald Fuselier returned a call saying a meeting will be held early this afternoon between HUD's OIG and LHA staff. "They will make a determination about whether HUD is going to take over," Fuselier said in a voicemail message.

Meanwhile, Durel said the state Legislature has the most potential to address future issues of oversight and accountability at the agency to ensure the current situation is not repeated. “[Donovan] pointed out that a lot of the rules we are operating under, as it relates to HUD, are done at the state level,” Durel said, noting that state law currently only provides him with the authority to appoint and dismiss board members; neither he nor Lafayette Consolidated Government has any oversight of the housing authority whatsoever. “That’s the extent of the law as it relates to us," Durel said. "I think in this case, there’s not enough bureaucracy."

Durel believes there is momentum to change state law and add a new level of supervision to the federally funded agency. “I think this whole situation has gotten a lot of people’s attention, and so maybe we can go to the state level and change, tweak some of the laws. ... As I keep saying there is something missing here. You can’t have the kind of management you have there, from the standpoint of HUD being so far away and a volunteer board. ... There is too much Monopoly money [involved].”

Durel could not reached for comment Friday afternoon or Monday, after state District Judge Ed Rubin reinstated three LHA board members he dismissed in August.

Last week Durel said he believes the board members all had good intentions and blames himself for not understanding the impact of his role as the appointing authority. The week before Rubin’s decision came down, Durel appointed six new board members, including accountants, an attorney and those with extensive financial and management expertise. The status of those appointments remains in limbo, pending Durel’s response to Rubin’s ruling.

“Most people, to their credit, get on these boards because they have a passion for it,” Durel said. “They think they’re doing good work. They’re helping people, but they don’t necessarily have a particular skill set.” Durel noted that he will push for extensive training of board members and will personally go through the training process as well.

“The most significant thing out of this is they are going to send somebody from HUD here, as an employee, to help the board transition,” Durel added, noting he also is contemplating asking the Legislature to approve a liaison position between HUD and LCG, perhaps from its Department of Community Development. “Maybe it’s an employee of this government that’s funded by HUD, because we shouldn’t have to spend our money watching over HUD. This person would attend every meeting; if the board has questions, maybe this person would be their liaison, more directly connected to HUD. I told Shaun Donovan, as far as me appointing the board when I came into office, I never quite understood the relationship; it never made much sense to me.”

Durel continued: “I told him I’ll take these board appointments a whole lot more seriously in the future, but we still have to put things in place to prevent these king of things from happening. Over a period of time, that board’s going to change. A new mayor is going to come in here, he’s going to get swept away like I did, and that’s not going to be a big priority of his because we have so little to do with it. You appoint people who you think care about helping people, and you don’t realize how important a particular skill set is.”

LHA's top official, Guillory was hired in 1998 after HUD took over and reorganized what was then a troubled housing authority. By just about any measure, Guillory was instrumental in turning the embattled agency around — and may now be just as culpable in running it right back into the ground.

It would certainly make for strange irony if HUD decides today to take it back.

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