State Agency Not Sure Its Funds Are 'Public Funds'
By Phil Williams Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Officials with Tennessee's Housing Development Agency say they're just spending money like lots of businesses do.
That follows a NewsChannel 5 investigation that revealed the state agency has spent tens of thousands of dollars having fun.
But THDA officials seemed confused about whether they're really a state agency at all.
For this year's Governor's Housing Summit, THDA brought in stand-up comedian and motivational speaker Ron Culberson.
"Sometimes we have to look at things with the right perspective and say 'so what?' The government shuts your organization down, so what? OK, maybe not a good example," Culberson said, drawing laughs from the attendees.
His bill: $8,000, plus expenses.
Three years before, it was a guitar-playing motivational speaker.
That bill: almost $5,000.
It's the same agency where employees regularly put on a talent show and spend staff time creating humorous videos to tout THDA events.
"We want to be the best housing finance agency that we can be and developing good employees -- people who are engaged and prepared to serve their customers -- they are worth the investment," said THDA spokesperson Patricia Smith.
And it's more than just the agency's outing this summer to Dave and Busters and the stretch limousine that our investigation first documented.
But it is money that families like Fred Goodson and his elderly mother thought would help get them out of their dilapidated house.
Earlier this year, they were told those THDA funds had run out.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted to Smith, "When you look at all of this spending, you have to wonder whether some of that money could not have been used to help some poor person out there who needs a roof over his head."
"It could," she acknowledged. "But part of running a good program is to have an engaged employee."
Despite the atmosphere and the spending, THDA officials say they don't think the public or lawmakers will care.
"Yes, they might be confused by the limousine -- and you'll tell them all about it," Smith said. "But I don't think they are going to criticize us for it."
In the case of the housing summit, officials say most of the money came from registration fees and sponsorships. They also claim sponsorship money pays for alcohol the agency serves at various events.
But all that money is mixed in with the public money, so it's hard to trace who's really paying for what.
THDA officials note that auditors have not questioned any of the agency's expenditures in years.
The agency has an internal auditor, but he's in a lot of these photos obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, right in the middle of the fun.
The state comptroller, whose office is responsible for state audits, also serves on the THDA board.
NewsChannel 5 reached out to him for comment, but so far there's been no response.