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Waste and abuse found in Nevada Hardest Hit Fund

Posted at 5:45 PM, Sep 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-09 22:28:34-04

Struggling homeowners fighting to save their homes got ripped off by the very people who were supposed to help.  

So says a scathing federal audit released today which found widespread abuse in Nevada's Hardest Hit housing program.  

Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears tells us how many millions were squandered.

It's a big figure and a bitter pill to swallow. 

$8.2 million in waste and abuse while support for homeowners essentially evaporated.

The Hardest Hit Fund is designed to get federal dollars into the hands of struggling Nevadans to help make their mortgage payments. To avoid losing their homes.

People like Cheryl Barber.

"I jumped through all the hoops."

Cheryl applied for help from the Hardest Hit Fund but got nothing because they claimed they couldn't give her enough to bring her loan current.

"It's my home! It's all I have. I lost my son two and a half years ago and that's been a battle. And ever since that, I have fought for my home because now I'm able to keep at least my son's room the same and go in there and visit with him as much as I can."

She's still fighting, but without help from the Nevada Affordable Housing Assistance Corporation. That's the contractor selected by the Nevada Housing Division to manage the Hardest Hit Fund.   

"This is the most egregious that SIGTARP has found in the Hardest Hit Fund in terms of waste and abuse," said Special Inspector General Christy Goldsmith Romero.

SIGTARP is the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Their audit found NAHAC used the fund for everything but helping homeowners.

"This ends up being like a cash cow, where it's used for every expense imaginable. Doesn't go out to homeowners and instead is kept for holiday parties and a Mercedes Benz and gifts to their employees."

The CEO's Mercedes cost taxpayers $500 a month. He also got a $20,000 golden parachute after he was terminated. 

There was a $900 company picnic. A massage for an employee. A $72 baby blanket, and a pricey manager outing at Herbs and Rye. 

There were country club lunches, employee bonuses, meals, gift cards, entertainment and travel--even a disc jockey--all while the number of homeowners who got help plummeted.  

"To see the crooks behind this and taking the money for parties and bonuses and a Mercedes Benz--it's... I'm just flat out appalled. Flabbergasted," said Cheryl Barber.

The inspector general found that NAHAC moved to larger and much more lavish office space in the new North Las Vegas city hall, where it paid more than $11,000 a month in rent. 

The number of homeowners who got rescue funds plummeted by 94 percent from 2013 to 2015.

"They're stealing from people! They're stealing!" Cheryl said.

This letter to the U.S. Treasury from the Nevada Housing Division shows it raised concerns about NAHAC a year ago. 

They say those responsible should be held accountable, but Cheryl believes the state is part of that.

Darcy Spears: Do you feel there was also a failure of oversight?
Cheryl: Oh, absolutely!

The Housing Division has asked the Nevada Attorney General to open an investigation and NAHAC recently restructured its board, changed its CEO and gave the state a greater role in the program. 

SIGTARP doesn't think that's nearly enough.

Christy Goldsmith Romero said, "First and foremost, this organization needs to be fired from the program. We can't risk millions of dollars that are left to go out to the program to be wasted and abused. And then second, we want the money to be ultimately paid back so that it can go to Nevada homeowners."

NAHAC did not provide an on-camera interview, but sent the following statement:

"In light of the federal audit handed down today, it is important to note that new leadership including a new board is in place at Nevada Affordable Housing Assistance Corp. (NAHAC). The former management team has been removed and new bylaws have been amended to provide for greater levels of accountability, transparency and state oversight. Additionally, Verise Campbell, former deputy director of Nevada’s Foreclosure Mediation Program, has been hired as chief operating officer, and, equally as important, the new board shall include three appointments by the state.

NAHAC is now fully cognizant of the depth of the issues raised in the audit report and will be working closely with Treasury and the Nevada Housing Division to provide transparency and ensure mistakes made by prior leadership are not repeated. We embrace SIGTARP’s report and will fully cooperate with the reviews by the appropriate governing bodies, in addition to NAHAC’s internal and external auditors.

Since joining NAHAC, Ms. Campbell and the new leadership team have been shifting the organization’s culture into one of accountability and transparency like never before to prevent such abuse and bad judgment from ever occurring again. She stated, “We are servants of the public and overseeing public funds for the public good. And, as such, NAHAC’s records and transactions shall be available for public scrutiny from this point forward. More importantly, we are change agents distancing ourselves from the past regime by installing financial oversight, new operational standards, and methods of accountability to ensure this never happens again. We are rolling up our sleeves to earn back the trust of the State, the Federal government and the taxpayers.

We are confident that once in place, the program we envision for NAHAC shall live up to its mission of providing help to those who have been hardest hit by the economic and housing crisis.”

Representative Dina Titus issued the following statement in response to the audit:

“I expressed initial skepticism about how the state chose to utilize funds from the Hardest Hit Fund program. When Nevada originally received these funds, I publicly encouraged the state to establish a system to help underwater homeowners buy down the principal on their mortgages while simultaneously investing in our communities. This was the best way to quickly help homeowners and stabilize communities in Nevada.  Instead, the state created a Rube Goldberg-esque system, bloated with administrative costs, known as the Nevada Affordable Housing Assistance Corporation. I am angered by the Nevada Housing Division’s lack of oversight and greatly disturbed that money meant to aid struggling Nevadans was squandered on parties, gift cards, and luxury items. My office has spoken with the Housing Division, SIGTARP, and the Treasury Department and will follow up about the findings of the audit. While our economy continues to improve in the aftermath of the recession, the state’s indiscretion highlighted in the report may jeopardize its future ability to garner federal assistance that can help Nevada families.”

Spokeswoman Monica Moazez with the Nevada Attorney General's office said, "“As always, the Office of the Attorney General takes every allegation of fraud, waste and abuse by state agencies very seriously. The Office became aware of this Treasury audit today, and will review and evaluate the matter.”