Decrying "steep price tags and an increasing number of contracts" at the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley this week asked federal overseers to provide him with documentation of the agency's salaries, consulting arrangements and travel expenses.
The Iowa Republican heavily cited the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Aug. 4 stories about the authority in his Wednesday letter, sent on Senate Judiciary Committee letterhead to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. The articles, which explored the authority's use of consultants to plan redevelopment efforts and handle legal and public safety work, "appear to be yet another example of insufficient HUD controls on taxpayer dollars," the senator wrote.
The federal government pays roughly 90 percent of the cost of public housing, Mr. Grassley wrote. "The Pittsburgh [housing authority] appears to be spending exorbitant amounts for outside consultants, some of whom are former employees," he wrote.
The letter quoted the Post-Gazette's findings that consulting firm CVR Associates billed the authority $1.25 million last year for coordinating the agency's extensive modernization and development efforts. The bills included $404,000 for the services of CVR vice president Nathaniel Boe and $201,000 for work done by subcontractor Terri Lee, a former authority employee.
The letter also questioned the role of former authority general counsel Michael Syme, now an attorney for Cohen & Grigsby. That firm is expected to receive $917,000 in authority funds over three years.
Mr. Grassley wrote that he was concerned that the firm has helped the authority to fend off inquiries from HUD's office of the inspector general and Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb.
"That they would hire a lawyer to block [an audit] is certainly of concern," said Mr. Lamb. "It's the federal government that really spends the money in [the authority], so the fact that an elected representative of the federal government is asking questions is probably a good thing."
Mr. Grassley asked HUD to provide the most recent employment contract for authority executive director Caster Binion, information on the compensation packages and official travel of all authority employees, lists of legal bills and professional services invoices paid by the authority, names of nonprofit affiliates of the agency and other information. He set a deadline of Oct. 4 for HUD's response.
HUD confirmed receipt of the letter but declined further comment.
"No one has asked me for anything at this time," said Mr. Binion, after the Post-Gazette provided him with the letter. "This is new information, and I don't know anything about it."
He said that the authority "will provide information as required by law and as requested." He added that the Post-Gazette's stories had not spurred any change in authority contracting practices.
Mr. Grassley also sent HUD's office of the inspector general a copy of the letter.
According to CVR's invoices, the authority in January scrambled to answer an office of the inspector general request for information on its development and modernization work, notably including Ms. Lee's projects.
A spokeswoman for the inspector general's office declined comment.
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord. First Published September 19, 2013 7:15 PM