JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Investigators want to know if taxpayer dollars were spent properly by the Jacksonville Division of Housing and Community Development and there are two investigations, including one at the state level, looking into its former manager and a non-profit housing rehabilitation company.
Investigators are looking into whether grant money was improperly awarded in Jacksonville.
The man making those decisions was demoted to a lower-paying job and is now suing the city in federal court, the I-TEAM has learned.
The city’s Office of Inspector General is deep into its investigation of Darrell Griffin, who was the housing division’s affordable housing coordinator.
The I-TEAM found a city audit of the housing division that spelled out trouble, reading that the audit would "investigate whether disciplinary action is warranted with the Program Manager" and if "action should be taken against the two not-for-profit entities."
Griffin, a 25-year city employee, was the manager named in the audit.
The I-TEAM found he was demoted the same month the audit was released. But he is now suing the city, saying he was singled out based on his race.
The audit uncovered an apparent conflict of interest centered on Wealth Watchers, a nonprofit that works to develop affordable housing and makes money doing it.
Ed Gaston, the vice president of Wealth Watchers, is also the president of a construction company that received the jobs and more than $100,000 in city money to complete them.
The I-TEAM obtained one of Gaston’s signed bids from Dvorak Construction, addressed to his Wealth Watchers co-worker Carrie Davis.
The auditor found Gaston’s dual role gave him and Wealth Watchers an unfair advantage over competitors.
That happened three different times. The audit said Griffin had knowledge of the conflict of interest and did nothing to stop it.
The I-TEAM also found Gaston used to work for the city of Jacksonville.
The city’s response to the audit includes this statement: "We are currently pursuing disciplinary action against this employee, which may include up to termination." As a result, Griffin wasn’t terminated, but he was demoted with a pay cut of $36,000.
Griffin, who says he has done nothing wrong, then filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville and his former boss, claiming discrimination based on his race. Similarly, Wealth Watchers denies any wrongdoing and says there was no conflict of interest.
The I-TEAM confirmed Wealth Watchers is under investigation by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, a state agency that oversees federal grant money allocated to cities such as Jacksonville through the State Housing Initiatives Partnership, or SHIP.
Wealth Watchers advertises its partnership with Florida Housing online, but a spokesperson for Florida Housing told the I-TEAM it has canceled that contract.
The I-TEAM also found recent emails from Jacksonville Councilman Reggie Brown to the city’s Office of Inspector General, asking to meet about Wealth Watchers.
After the audit's findings were made public, Brown had a day of service for his constituents that was hosted by Wealth Watchers.
The I-TEAM also searched the property donation list going back to 2006 and found that since Brown took office in 2008, the city donated 11 distressed properties within his district to housing rehabilitation companies, including seven to Wealth Watchers.
Brown released a statement about his involvement with Wealth Watchers:
The reason I was interested in the Wealth Watchers investigation was because the organization stated they were not notified by the state regarding the investigation. The meeting was called to make sure due process was being handled appropriately and accordingly. As of today, Wealth Watchers has not received correspondence from the state.
Wealth Watchers’ director said she doesn’t know why the Florida Housing Finance Corporation is investigating her organization and so she denied comment on that investigation.
Griffin's lawsuit accuses the city of making him a scapegoat because he was just following a policy that his department and his boss had followed previously, a policy that was also echoed by Wealth Watchers to the I-TEAM.
As for the city audit, Wealth Watchers denies any wrongdoing, contending that there was no conflict of interest with regard to the work done by Dvorak Construction They stated that the city allows developers with contractors on staff to “self-perform,” or serve as contractors themselves for the project. Wealth Watchers adds they have provided documentation to the city which supports a policy of allowing organizations to do this.
This is the same allegation Griffin makes in his lawsuit – he was just following established policy.
However, in the city’s response to Griffin’s lawsuit, they deny any policy exists that allows a non-profit developer to “self-perform” as a general contractor, under the circumstances in this case.
Wealth Watchers also released the following statement to the I-TEAM:
Wealth Watchers Inc. continues to be a good steward of tax payer dollars and a trusted partner for the citizens of Jacksonville. Wealth Watchers has followed every city procurement policy, past and present and adamantly deny any wrong doing related to the City SHIP Audit.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said the inspector general was investigating the Jacksonville Housing Authority, not the Division of Housing and Community Development. News4Jax regrets the error.