Suspended housing official fights claims

City officials are pointing a finger at a single employee for recent trouble in the Housing and Community Devel­­op­ment Department, including the city having to repay $344,000 in misspent federal funds.

However, that employee, Hous­ing Manager La Sandra Corley, is disputing claims that she provided false information about the housing developers who spent the money and that she failed to “continuously” alert her bosses of project deadlines.

In April, the Augusta Com­mis­sion authorized a $344,000 repayment of federal funds demanded by U.S. Housing and Urban Devel­op­ment because projects the city was supposed to complete with the funds were not completed.

At the time, Assistant Housing and Community Development Director Hawthorne Welcher told the commission that a nonprofit community housing development organization that was supposed to complete one project was unable to do so.

In response to questions from commissioners about the East Augusta Community Development Corp.’s tax-exempt status, Welcher insisted it was a legal nonprofit organization. However, the IRS had revoked the group’s nonprofit status last year for not filing a tax return since 2003.

In Corley’s appeal of her June 4 suspension for four days without pay by Housing Director Chester Wheeler, she disputes his account of events surrounding the refund.

Corley denies that she provided Welcher with “erroneous information” about East Augusta Community Development’s nonprofit status, which Wheeler said he repeated to commissioners. However, Corley acknowledges she was responsible for certifying CHDOs annually.

“The revocation of East Augus­ta’s 501c3 status was brought to light by … The Augusta Chronicle,” she wrote. “Hawthorne Welcher only discussed possible reasons for the delay of the projects such as the lack of sewer but failed to divulge the role that Housing and Com­munity Development played in the delay.”

Corley’s appeal does not elaborate on what the housing department’s role in the delay was, but she claims she kept Welcher and Wheeler apprised at monthly meetings of the status of projects and importance of meeting deadlines and had done so since the last visit by the HUD inspector general. She also claims she was never instructed to verify a CHDO’s nonprofit status with the IRS.

“I do not appreciate my career being tainted and sullied by Chester Wheeler and Hawthorne Welcher,” she said.

Corley, a city employee since 2000, earns $52,599 as housing manager, according to city records.

Wheeler, City Ad­min­is­trator Fred Russell and Deputy City Administrator Bill Shanahan refused to comment, citing an ongoing personnel action. Like recently demoted Recreation Operations Manager Melinda Pearson, Corley bypassed the administrators and contacted commissioners directly.

Commissioner Jerry Brig­ham said he had received but not read Corley’s letter.

“She’s still got to go through the hoops,” he said.

Since the refund demand, Brigham’s and other commissioners’ requests for the CHDOs to account for how they spent the refunded funds have been ignored or delayed for weeks. Only one – Sand Hills Redevelopment Corp. – has offered any written explanation. The CHDOs are scheduled to present information in some form at a workshop Monday.

“I’m trying to understand what happened,” Brigham said. “I would think HCD would have basic information.”

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