MILWAUKEE (AP) — An inspection this year found the St. Croix Chippewa tribe, which gets millions in federal housing funds, has failed to collect more than $400,000 in back rent and allowed high-income renters in low-income housing, an Associated Press review found.
An earlier federal audit found the tribe had put almost $500,000 in an account that didn't earn interest and spent thousands on holiday bonuses, gift certificates and restaurant tabs, according to documents obtained by the AP.
About 60 tribal families are currently waiting for public housing and some are doubling up with others just to have a place to stay. Meanwhile, more than $1 million in federal construction funds remain frozen since the 1995 audit by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"It got to the point where the funds were so badly mismanaged the tribe had to loan the housing program a substantial amount of money to keep the program running," said Thomas W. Boockmeier, a HUD official who heads all American Indian programs east of the Mississippi.
The St. Croix Chippewa Housing Authority, which oversees 223 rental units and houses, has improved under new management, HUD and tribal officials agree.
However, HUD told the agency in April that it was still facing "serious deficiencies" in two areas: collecting rent and putting high-income tenants in low-income housing without explaining why. In one case, a family earning $81,346 was in housing set aside for people earning less than $30,150.
HUD found that about $406,434 in back rent was owed as of February, and the average delinquency per unit was $1,983.
Meanwhile, some families have moved in with friends and relatives just to have a place to stay, according to Monica Butler, executive director of the agency.
"We're in really bad need of housing," Butler said.
In 1997, HUD spent $6.5 billion for public housing nationwide. Of that, $282.5 million went to American Indian reservations.
The 1,600-member St. Croix Chippewa tribe, whose reservation is within miles from Minnesota in northwestern Wisconsin, received more than $5.6 million between 1990 and 1995, during the time of the audit.
The 1995 audit, which covered January 1990 to February 1995, found the housing agency had done everything from leaving signed, blank checks in an unsecured area to keeping a running tab at a convenience store where employees bought gas, donuts and sodas.
The audit also found that the agency:
— Took $482,340 from an automated telephone withdrawal system and put it in a non-interest bearing account that was insured for only $100,000;
— Improperly loaned $2,000 to an employee, who paid back $600 then stopped, telling investigators later he had forgotten about the loan;
— Spent $6,993 for ineligible expenses, including $3,100 for holiday bonuses and gift certificates, $281 for restaurant meals and $665 for repairs to vehicles that didn't belong to the authority.
The audit was released the same month an independent federal investigation into corruption at the housing authority ended with no criminal charges because of a lack of effective witnesses, according to HUD records obtained by the AP.
The tribe has since cleaned house, said Butler, who blames the problems on years of mismanagement under previous directors.
Janelle Golden, the executive director from 1991 to 1995, was fired for misconduct, including spending HUD money for personal use, Butler said.
An executive director before her, Catherine Sandstrom, was sentenced to two years in jail after pleading guilty to one count of felony embezzlement and one count of felony misconduct in public office. She had been charged with 23 counts, according to Burnett County District Attorney Kenneth Kutz.
"Nobody from the outside can ever understand what we're going through," Butler said. "Here we are just a little housing authority, striving just to have good living conditions … and somebody, unfortunately, came in here, took advantage of the situation and took advantage of the people."
"I see the ones that got the dirty end of the deal, and that was the tenants," she said.
Golden, reached at her home in Minnesota, wouldn't comment on Butler's allegations.
"Tribal politics really messes a lot of things up. (It) interferes with trying to conduct good, quality business," she said.
HUD said it would continue to closely monitor the agency. If necessary, HUD could take over the housing authority management.
"This is a continual process and we will take any actions that we feel are warranted," Boockmeier said.