The Real McGuffin

Neil McGuffin was supposed to guide the Miami Beach Housing Authority into the new millennium. Instead he exposed an agency in disarray. And he lost his job.

In total McGuffin, who took the director's job in May 1998, convinced the board to shell out about $180,000 in fees to consultants to help identify the agency's weaknesses. Before McGuffin finished unleashing the experts -- not unlike a hunter loosing pedigreed bloodhounds -- Casterline and the others would file reports indicating virtually every aspect of the agency's operations were being inefficiently run and that landlords were being paid far above market rates.

McGuffin also hired an outside group in June 1999 to compare MBHA workers' salaries to those of employees in twelve similar agencies. The report, executed by Parilla and Associates of Plantation, sent the MBHA staff reeling. Twenty-two employees were being overpaid. A maintenance laborer received $30,690, about $6000 more than the maximum found at similar organizations surveyed; and a Section 8 worker, got $50,795 yearly, about $20,000 more than the maximum expected for the same labor elsewhere. On July 1, 1999, McGuffin ratcheted up the pressure another notch: He froze the salaries of the 22 employees. "The survey clearly showed very few people needed a raise," he says.

McGuffin also brought in experts to determine how best to manage property holdings. For this task he hired Stephenson and Moore, a prominent real estate management firm, to probe the day-to-day operations at the twin Rebecca Towers buildings as well as a property at 211 Collins Ave. In September 1999 the consultants recommended replacing the entire maintenance staff of sixteen with an outside service. The only other reasonable option, said the report, was a complete restructuring and reduction of employees' salaries. Says Bower: "People became more worried about who [McGuffin] was going to fire next than about getting problems solved." McGuffin had already terminated the agency's accountant, Don Cornwell.

Jose Caicoya, 65, and Eliana Forte, 73, like living at Rebecca Towers; so would the 1200 other folks on the MBHA's closed waiting list
Steve Satterwhite
Jose Caicoya, 65, and Eliana Forte, 73, like living at Rebecca Towers; so would the 1200 other folks on the MBHA's closed waiting list
The twin Rebecca Towers house 400 of the city's elderly, who receive Section 8 subsidies through the MBHA
Steve Satterwhite
The twin Rebecca Towers house 400 of the city's elderly, who receive Section 8 subsidies through the MBHA

The most serious findings concerned the Section 8 department. Inspector David Kleinman alleged staff members were receiving cash and gifts as kickbacks in exchange for allowing rents to be set higher than market value. He also claimed employees were steering tenants toward certain landlords and falsifying inspection reports. Kleinman claimed his life was being threatened by landlords who opposed his uncovering of misdeeds. These allegations have yet to be proven. The SAO is currently reviewing materials related to the matter, says SAO spokesman Don Ungurait.

The report confirms there was "a lack of adequate written procedures in virtually every area of the Section 8 program.... The problem is particularly troubling in the area of determining contract rents to owners." The authority was making monthly payments fourteen percent above market rate for one-bedroom apartments and thirteen percent above market rents for two-bedroom dwellings. "In any Section 8 program, this is the area most vulnerable to impropriety," the report's author adds.

A February 2000 follow-up analysis estimates the agency was making an annual overpayment of $266,112 to area landlords, while paperwork that tracked rental rates was poorly maintained. "The deficiencies identified in this report have crippled the authority's ability to effectively refute allegations of impropriety. For this reason, these allegations cannot be dismissed," Casterline concluded. The HUD Inspector General's Office agrees. It is currently reviewing the MBHA's books.

By November 1999 a serious rift had grown between McGuffin and others associated with the authority, both on the board and on his staff. His most vehement opponent was Ruth Pasarell, an outspoken 40-year-old, who is the only MBHA board member living in Section 8 housing. Pasarell had suffered the brunt of McGuffin's criticism, which often came in the form of ironic jabs. It was she who initiated the bid to terminate McGuffin. "I'm the big mouth, the loud pushy one, I've got something to lose," says Pasarell, in her typically powerful style, a mix of self-deprecation and fierce, unrelenting self-promotion.

Pasarell, who has been on the board for three years, adamantly refutes any charge of impropriety in the Section 8 department. "It might be neglect, it might be incompetence, but it's not corruption," she says. "The last time some of these people received instruction was fifteen years ago."

In some ways she shares McGuffin's frustrations with the city's efforts at supporting the poor. "The board is being manipulated by the mayor," she says. "[City government] doesn't want Miami Beach to develop any more Section 8 housing." She blames McGuffin for the agency's internal problems, citing his divisive and counterproductive managerial style. Like many agency staff members she believes problems could have been better solved by seeking solutions from within the organization, rather than bringing in outsiders.

At an MBHA meeting this past November 16, the pressure to oust McGuffin began to spill over. Fifteen staff members, one by one, spoke for several minutes about tensions that had risen to the boiling point. Some speakers had to be escorted back to their seats after venting frustration. Others wept.

Jay Maxwell, an intake specialist and 22-year veteran of the Section 8 department, expressed the department's pain. "Morale is at an all-time low," said Maxwell, reading from a prepared speech. "Big Brother is lurking over our shoulder.... We are not overpaid, and we are willing to work.... These changes are hitting us like bricks."

"What went wrong here [is that] ... employees are being made scapegoats for everything wrong," said Miguel Villa, assistant supervisor of the inspections department.

"Lately, all we do is answer to consultants, HUD, and auditors," summed up Ana Muñoz, a member of the accounting department.

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