LAS VEGAS, NV (KTNV) — A program that's supposed to help troubled homeowners has run into some trouble of its own. Nevada's Hardest Hit Fund still has money available, but once again, federal watchdogs are questioning how some of it has been spent.
13 Investigates has kept tabs on the program and now we see what's improved and what still needs work.
When the housing crisis first hit across the country, Nevada got $150-millio in federal funds meant to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. The Nevada Affordable Housing Assistance Corporation--or NAHAC--was in charge of getting that money into homeowners' hands.
At its best, we get stories like Donna Digregoria's.
"They helped me. They helped me keep my home," says Donna.
Donna had lost her job due to medical problems and was about to lose her home. She asked her lender how she could save it.
"And they said there's only one project that we will work with and that's Hardest Hit of Nevada."
She wasn't optimistic she would even qualify. Still, she applied, sent in all the required documents, and eventually, staff called her in for a meeting.
"You know everybody's all excited and I'm going, 'Would someone please tell me what's going on?' They go, 'Oh! We didn't tell you? You were awarded $100,000 to save your home.' Almost fell off the chair. I said,'what?!'"
But the feds say there should be more people like Donna. Instead, in NAHAC's early years, government auditors discovered improper spending on staff parties and lunches, unnecessary travel, employee gifts--and a CEO who was forced out, but got a $20,000 severance check.
Enter Verise Campbell.
"My goal was to come in and right the ship here," says Campbell.
She points to the positives, saying NAHAC has saved more than 6,000 homes.
"We're helping children stay in their homes. We're helping families stay together. We're helping other homeowners as they deal with health issues."
And there's a ripple effect boosting the surrounding neighborhood.
But NAHAC still has its own issues to clean up. The latest SIGTARP audit released last month again zeroed in on travel and again questioned the organization's spending.
One board member and another official spent more than $4000 in 2014 for a conference in Dana Point, California, the pair enjoying a luxurious stay at the St. Regis beach resort. The audit found there was no documentation explaining why the trip was needed. That was before campbell took over the program.
"Those funds were reimbursed back to Treasury," Campbell explains. "I can say the staff person is no longer with the organization."
While overall the Nevada program was under budget on travel, auditors found several violations where staff upgraded airline seats and taxpayers paid more than $700 dollars for hotel and airfare that were never used because of "no-shows." There was also $543 spent for an official to extend a stay at a Las Vegas resort for a personal vacation.
"We take to heart every finding and we look at how we can do things better," says Campbell. "And how we can be more transparent. "
Auditors also took issue with $37,298 spent on legal fees in a wrongful termination case.
"Anyone can file a lawsuit and the corporation must defend," says Campbell.
Campbell says the Hardest Hit Programs were up and running before a lot of details were worked out, leaving a gap paying for legal costs.
"Where would those funds come from?" Campbell asks. "It is difficult at times because of how the guidelines are written."
Regardless, Campbell says Nevada's program has made good on any prior mistakes.
"We have reimbursed everything that Treasury determined was unallowable, even if we disagreed."
And Campbell tells us there's still money available.
"I want to make sure homeowners understand that there's $18 million dollars left in the Home Retention programs. If you're having difficulty paying your mortgage, please give us a call." (888) 320-6526
It's a call that can change your life. Just ask Donna.
"If it wasn't for Nevada's Hardest Hit, I might be living on the street right now," says Donna. "They were a godsend."
Click here for more information. It's important to contact Nevada Hardest Hit Fund directly because the US Treasury rules as to who qualifies are very specific.
And keep in mind, if Nevada doesn't use the money, we'll lose it as the program will close down next year.