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6/27/01 - Miami Herald


BY Charles Rabin

The U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating a federally funded program in Miami's Office of Community Development that has given low-income property owners grants worth $6 million for home improvements during the last two years.

A subpoena issued last month by federal prosecutors ordered the department to turn over all documents, construction files and records of payments made to contractors associated with the department's Single Family Rehabilitation program dating back to August 1995.

The city late Tuesday fired nearly one-fourth of the program's staff, letting four inspectors and two underwriters go and demoting a program manager. City Manager Carlos Gimenez would not elaborate on the personnel decisions.

``They were terminated for a variety of reasons dealing with the irregularities of the housing rehab program,'' Gimenez said.


Asked if he expected indictments, Gimenez would say only that ``I can't answer that question.''

City leaders would not provide specifics about the investigation of the program funded by the the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Federal authorities also would not comment.

But two city commissioners spoke of shoddy construction practices by contractors. And a high-ranking Miami official who asked not to be identified said the investigation is looking into possible kickbacks to building inspectors working in Community Development.

The program has been under scrutiny for several months. In March, city administrators suspended the program and began an internal investigation. Its 25 employees were moved to other positions. Then in June, just before the subpoena was received, the city halted the program indefinitely.

``We were able to identify that there were some quality control issues,'' Community Development Director Gwendolyn Warren said. ``There was homeowner dissatisfaction with the quality of work being done.''


Commissioners and other city officials said they began suspecting problems last year when complaints came in from several homeowners in some of the city's poorer neighborhoods.

Miami Commissioner Tomás Regalado said people in his Flagami/West Little Havana district were being blatantly cheated.

``I visited one person in my district, and the contractors charged $2,000 for a door and $3,000 for a sink,'' he said. ``And these are the poorest of the poor.''

The workers let go Tuesday were Javier Mesa, a senior housing rehabilitation estimator; Nyron Manborde, a housing quality assurance worker; Rufus Orindare, a zoning inspector; Ana Diaz, a loan review assistant; Maritz Fuertes, a loan review assistant; and Nelson Rodriguez, a housing quality assurance monitor.

Rafael Rodriguez was demoted from housing program manager to zoning inspector.

Reached at home Tuesday evening, Orindare said he was called into the city Labor Relations office at 4:55 p.m. and told to sign a termination letter.

``I don't even know what they're claiming. Nobody told me a single thing,'' Orindare said. ``My conscience was clear, I was even laughing. I'm taking legal action. No one called me or told me anything. They just let me go. I didn't do anything wrong.''

The other fired employees could not be reached.

Gimenez said the city was close to concluding its investigation, which began shortly after the March moratorium.

Under the program, a homeowner who wants to upgrade a house fills out a form and submits it to Community Development. If it's accepted, the department sends an inspector to the home to help identify problems. The inspector then helps the homeowner find a builder to do the work.


Three bids by contractors are accepted by Community Development, Warren said, then the inspector helps the client choose a contractor right for the job.

The search for a contractor is not advertised.

Any person who remains in the home for five years does not have to repay the grant of up to $40,000.

Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr. said about 90 percent of the loan recipients live in his district's neighborhoods of Overtown, Liberty City and Little Haiti. The problem stretches back four or five years, he said.

Teele believes the main problem with the program is that jobs are not advertised, which allows inspectors to help find the contractors. Teele said a city investigation found ``substantial'' questions about the qualifications of contractors