Housing Authority fires director, accuses him of financial misdeeds

The Palm Beach County Housing Authority has fired its director, Van Johnson, accusing him of financial and ethical misdeeds.

During a three-hour meeting on Saturday, board members voted unanimously to fire Johnson for cause, including “financial malfeasance, gross mismanagement and ethics violations.”

A statement released by the housing authority on Monday said Johnson approved $230,000 in bonuses for himself without meeting financial milestones that would have justified those bonuses. The authority also said Johnson approved administrative and consulting fees of more than $1 million while the authority struggled to meet payroll.

A man who answered Johnson’s cell phone Monday hung up on a reporter who called for comment on his ouster.

Paul Dumars Jr., vice chair of the authority’s board, said Johnson hid documents from board members, expanded the scope and pay of consultants and intimidated staff members.

“He instructed employees that none of them were to talk to board members,” Dumars said. “They lived under constant fear of him.”

Asked why he and his colleagues did not move more quickly to terminate Johnson given his concerns, Dumars said: “The board didn’t want to confront (Johnson) on unfounded allegations. We had to build a case.”

Dumars said the authority is developing a request for proposal from firms that would conduct a forensic audit of the authority’s finances. A firm is expected to be hired and the work completed during the next three months, Dumars said.

The board expects to hire a new executive director in six to eight months, he said.

Johnson was hired in 2011 and was paid $210,000 a year.

The Palm Beach County Housing Authority, like housing authorities across the country, uses federal money to rehabilitate and build housing for the poor. It also provides direct assistance to the poor through housing vouchers it receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Misappropriating federal money is a federal crime. Neither HUD’s Office Inspector General nor Dumars would confirm or deny that Johnson is under federal investigation.

Glorida Shananan, a HUD spokeswoman, said: “We are aware of the termination, and we are working with the housing authority to ensure normal operations.”

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay has long been frustrated with Johnson, taking the unusual step of upbraiding him in public meetings for poor communication with her office and for failing to move fast enough to get federal assistance for a troubled housing development project in the Glades, which is in her commission district.

She said she had concerns about Johnson’s leadership of the authority.

“I was concerned about the behind-the-scenes operations of the authority,” McKinlay said. “I raised those concerns with federal folks, too. Nobody did anything about it.”

Dumars said he has been quietly getting information from staff members and reviewing documents to get a clear sense of what was happening.

McKinlay said she is disappointed someone hired to help provide housing to the poor is now accused of financial misdeeds.

“It is a sad day for the people who live in Palm Beach County who depend on (the housing authority) for housing, for shelter,” McKinlay said.

Despite its name, the county has no authority over the housing agency, whose board members are appointed by the governor.

“Governor Scott expects all appointees and boards across the state to act ethically while protecting tax dollars,” said Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for the governor. “We will review any information sent to our office and will take appropriate action.”

County Commissioner Mack Bernard said he’d like the county to have some say in the governance of the housing authority, given its name and the services it provides to county residents.

“I would like to see whether or not it’s possible to get the Legislature to allow the County Commission to appoint two members” to the authority’s board, Bernard said.

Dumars said he wants the public to know that the board is taking action to restore public confidence in the housing authority, whose staff will be led on an interim basis by Lesleigh Varner, who served as deputy executive executive director under Johnson.

“We removed the main perpetrator,” Dumars said. “We have confidence in the staff that was there.”

This story has been updated to include comments from the governor’s office.

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