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Prince George’s housing agency audit reveals systemic problems

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An independent audit released Tuesday found that the Prince George’s County Department of Housing and Community Development, which has had a long history of poor leadership, has operated with untrained staff members and has lacked a long-term housing policy, allowing millions of dollars to be awarded to developers without formal criteria.

The report is part of a county effort to address systemic problems within the troubled agency. The audit follows a county government audit in 2009 that reviewed how the agency allocated millions in federal housing grants to area nonprofit groups.

Last year, the county was forced to return $2 million to the federal government after failing to meet a five-year deadline for spending it. And in October 2008, the county nearly lost $5 million in funds from a federal program to create affordable housing after failing to meet a deadline for earmarking the money.

“There have been issues with the housing department for many years, and the council in its oversight capacity . . . wanted an independent audit to assess what was going on,” said Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie).

Turner said she was pleased with the final report, noting that it can be used as a blueprint for the administration as it addresses problems.

“I think it was beneficial to help identify issues, to help us move forward,” Turner said.

The council pushed for an independent audit in spring 2010 after the county was forced to return the federal funds. Former County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) refused to approve the contract while in office, but County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) signed a nearly $65,000 contract with the Virginia Tech Center for Housing Research in December to conduct a review of management functions.

“This is not a report card or a gotcha exercise,” said John Kromer, a consultant who worked with the center. He also said the report was limited in its scope because large portions of the review were completed last fall.

“This does not include recent performance or the current administration’s plans,” Kromer said. “This is really a focus of inherited problems, and they require some attention.”

The report largely reviews the work of the agency while James Johnson was director. Johnson, who was involved in a sweeping corruption investigation by the FBI over the past few years, pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to commit extortion. Johnson, who became director in 2008, received thousands of dollars from developers in return for official favors, including housing grant funding, according to court documents.

Kromer said the county does not have criteria for awarding funds to developers. And while the county has improved its practices for awarding federal funds for affordable housing projects, Kromer said, it remains the lowest performer in Maryland.

Council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) said he found it “very, very troubling” that the county did not have criteria for awarding millions of dollars.

Baker said Eric C. Brown, the new housing department director, will take a closer look at the report.

Brown told the council Tuesday that he has started to address many of the problems outlined in the report by providing training and designing a policy that includes criteria for developers applying for grants. Brown said the criteria will be similar to what the state Department of Housing and Community Development requires for low-income housing tax-credit deals.

“All organizations are going to be held to performance standards,” Brown said of developers and nonprofit agencies that the department works with.

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