RICHMOND -- While beset by mounting debt and low performance grades from federal officials, the city's public housing agency funded a series of trips, sending volunteer advisers to conferences to receive training with costs amounting to $79,315 from mid-2008 to 2011.
The expense documents -- obtained by this newspaper through a public records request -- show three instances in which individual members of the Richmond Housing Advisory Commission spent more than $7,900 in a single year to travel to training conferences. In contrast, members of the City Council are allotted a $5,000 maximum per year for travel.
Funding for the advisory commission travel was discontinued in 2011 by Richmond Housing Director Tim Jones.
"We stopped the travel because money got tight," Jones said. "I had no problem with the travel expenses, which were in place long before I arrived here, and it wasn't a problem until the expenses couldn't be budgeted easily."
The funds came out of the housing authority's operating budget, Jones said.
While HAC members, who are appointed by the mayor to provide oversight and report feedback to top housing officials, were traveling to conferences in places such as Nashville, Washington, D.C., and Palm Springs, the housing authority was suffering from aging structures, pest problems and complaints of poor tenant services.
The troubles came to light in February when The Center for Investigative Reporting characterized the housing authority as among the most troubled in the nation, saddled with mounting debt, sloppy procurement practices, misuse of public funds and poor staff performance.
Jones was labeled "ineffective" by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the agency.
The City Council last month voted to relocate tenants from the Hacienda, an aging six-story building on Roosevelt Avenue where tenants complained of pest infestation and a leaky roof.
But while advisory commission members were traveling and receiving training, the monthly reports they produced were not getting to the City Council, according to an investigation by this newspaper.
One former commissioner, Arnie Kasendorf, penned monthly reports in 2010 and 2011 complaining about mold, bug infestation, security lapses and other problems in the system, but those reports stopped at Jones and never reached the council.
Council members expressed shock and outrage when those same problems were revealed by the news media three years later.
The largest single travel expense was by former HAC member Anntheia Yvonne Harrison-Farr, who spent $9,518 on travel from July 2008 to June 2009, according to city documents. Harrison-Farr could not be reached for comment.
Commission member Jackie Thompson, who spent $7,932 on travel and training from July 2009 to June 2010, said the conferences were a good investment because the training she and other members received benefited public housing residents and the system as a whole.
"The training was valuable," said Thompson, who is also a public housing resident. "I brought back the skills I learned to conduct resident training, to teach my fellow residents about their rights and to give leadership classes."
Thompson said some members did not take their training seriously or disseminate learned information to the group or to other housing residents, but she declined to identify them.
Thompson said Jones told the advisory commission in 2011 that its travel budget would be taken away to help stem mounting debt. The city has loaned the housing authority at least $7 million over the years, which accounts in part for the agency's low HUD scores.
"Tim said we had to pay off a debt to the city, so we couldn't travel," Thompson said. "We agreed to forfeit our travel."
City Manager Bill Lindsay said he was unaware of the past travel expenses and needed to investigate the matter further.
"Although I don't know the context, I can say that those numbers are awfully high," Lindsay said of the travel amounts. "It was good that Tim (Jones) discontinued it."
HUD spokeswoman Gene Gibson said Friday that while the agency has the authority to look into travel expenses, there is no information indicating HUD funding was used improperly.
"Training and travel for tenant advisory groups is an eligible use of operating funds," Gibson said. "Whether it was a wise use of money (by the housing authority) is not a determination we will make."