County housing authority official resigns amid travel payment controversy

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- Two Travis County housing authority leaders took thousands of dollars in travel advances without paying the county back for years, according to an audit discussed Tuesday.

The audit revealed Willie Anderson, who served on the boards of the Strategic Housing Finance Corporation (SHFC) and the Housing Authority of Travis County (HATC), took more than $7,300 in travel advances dating back to 2011-little of the money has been repaid. Anderson resigned her posts following the audit revelations, said County Judge Sarah Eckhardt.

The failure to repay the advances is described as "abuses" of the system according to a county judge.

The audit also shows HATC board chairman Melvin Wrenn accepted over $6,500 in travel advances that were still outstanding at the time of the audit. Wrenn has not resigned, the commissioners agreed to send him letter explaining his options, which include that commissioners could vote to remove him or he could resign.

According to the housing authority's policy, travelers are supposed to return unused travel advances within 90 days. The audit shows the two officials failed to reconcile their balances for years.

"[Wren] has allowed something to happen that is particularly egregious," said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. "It is really unfortunate this has gotten to where it is today because it becomes quite public."

Wrenn gave KXAN a letter he wrote to Eckhardt, in it he says he sacrificed 40 to 50 hours per week working for the housing authority, and the training he received was intended to help him "achieve the best performance possible as an executive director."

Wrenn told KXAN in an email: "I am at fault for not turning in my receipts or paying for an airline ticket."

"I personally have no regrets, except for the fact that I did not clear up the travel and training issues prior to leaving the next to the last week in June 2015," Wrenn stated in his letter to Eckhardt.

Wrenn also said he is pulling together the remainder of his receipts, bank and credit card record to fulfill all requirements and accountability for the trips taken. He would also submit payment as necessary to eliminate any discrepancy.

"Based upon my time spent working at the housing authority where I saved over $150,000 that it would have paid an executive director, I in no way want to harm or give the appearance of any wrong doing, as seems to be indicated in the Travis County Auditor's Report," Wrenn stated.

Eckhardt described the failure to repay the advances as "abuses" of the system, in a letter.

"Outstanding balances from Chair Wrenn and Chair Anderson remain," Eckhardt said in a Feb. 19 letter. "I have not seen substantial movement to indicate an end to the travel abuses or timely resolution of previous travel abuses."

Travis County Auditor Nicki Riley said both Wrenn and Anderson had worked to submit some travel receipts and reconcile the outstanding balances. Wrenn's balance due is currently about $4,600, and Anderson's is roughly $7,000.

Anderson also sought a barter, asking if she could work off her debt through volunteering, Eckhardt said. It isn't clear at this time if such an arrangement would conflict with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rules. Riley also said the auditor's office is working with the housing authority to improve its travel policies.

Wrenn and Anderson did not attend the meeting.

Patrick Howard, current executive director of HAFT and executive vice president of SHFC hired in mid 2015, said the agencies have worked to fix the problems.

"The situation itself is one that none of us feel proud of," Howard said at the commissioners court meeting. "We will continue to try to be transparent as we move forward."

The HATC and SHFC are independent, government-funded agencies that provide low-income housing and assist with financing, acquisition and construction of the housing, among other duties. The Commissioner's Court appoints the board members.

Eckhardt said that both organizations "are on quite good footing right now."

County commissioners agreed to send a letter to Wrenn, and KXAN will follow up with more details on his status as a board member as they become available.

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