Probe into the embattled Florida housing director is closed

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Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talks on the phone with President Joe Biden as he stands outside storm-damaged restaurant Shrimp Boat during a visit to Horseshoe Beach, Fla., one day after the passage of Hurricane Idalia, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Board members of the Florida House Financing Corp. concluded an investigation Friday into hostile workplace accusations with little action a day after the director of the agency — who was backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year — resigned.

The corporation’s board of directors also agreed to consider recommendations made in an inspector general report spurred by allegations against former director Mike DiNapoli that call for increased background checks into executive leadership.

“Much of what we might have otherwise needed to consider appears to have been rendered moot by virtue of the resignation,” board Chairman Mario Facella said during Friday’s meeting in Cape Coral.

Angie Sellers, the corporation’s chief financial officer, will continue in an acting role as director of the agency, which is focused on increasing affordable housing opportunities. The agency also is carrying out portions of the $711 million “Live Local Act” that was approved by state lawmakers earlier this year as a priority of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples.

In Thursday’s fiery resignation letter, DiNapoli claimed his “attempts to resolve any possible corruption by staff or certain board members were cut short” and said he was the subject of “vicious attacks” when attempting to “implement modest but necessary ethical reforms.”

DiNapoli maintained that a “convoluted” internal investigation was launched against him to end his reform efforts, alleging that “certain board members regularly” communicate in private with housing staff and that they had “their own, or personally aligned, financial interests at stake in the actions and decisions of the staff and board.”

“Attempts I made to prevent the appearance of, or worse, the conduct of, unethical or unprofessional behavior by corporation board members and staff were ignored or thwarted,” DiNapoli wrote.

DiNapoli also alleged in his letter that attempts to “cultivate an atmosphere of enhanced professionalism” by requiring staff to be in the office rather than work from home and to wear “professional attire” when in the office, “were met with what I believed to be an extreme level of push-back.”

The governor appoints the majority of the corporation’s board members, who didn’t address the contents of DiNapoli’s resignation letter during Friday’s meeting.

A former financial advisor who had served as director of small and minority business capital within what is now the state Department of Commerce, DiNapoli was hired in February upon the recommendation of the governor’s then-chief of staff James Uthmeier. Uthmeier now serves as campaign manager for DeSantis’ presidential campaign.

DiNapoli was placed on paid leave by the board in July amid allegations of creating a hostile work environment.

DeSantis overrode the board a month later, but DiNapoli again was placed on paid leave by the board in September after the agency’s inspector general found violations of corporation policies.

The inspector general, Chris Hirst, told the board at the time that the panel didn’t follow its standard hiring practices involving DiNapoli.

“Florida Housing did not advertise the position. It did not receive any application and or resume,” Hirst told the board in September. “And furthermore, Florida Housing did not do any previous employment reference checks.”

Board Vice Chairman Ryan Benson, at the September meeting, blamed the board for failing to fully review DiNapoli.

“Do we treat the recommendation from the governor’s office with a higher standard, for sure,” Benson said. “But at no point were we asked to skip any vetting process and just go straight to a vote and not even get an application.”

Facella at the time said a criminal background check was conducted and DiNapoli’s file from the Department of Economic Opportunity — now the Department of Commerce — was “clean.”

Board member Meredith Ivey, deputy secretary of Community Development at Commerce, criticized the report as “sloppy,” “rushed,” and reading like a “hit piece.”

But Facella, voting to reimpose DiNapoli’s suspension in September, argued that the action was needed to “stabilize” conditions at the agency, saying the report “found Mr. DiNapoli was creating a hostile work environment.”

According to a Tampa Bay Times report, DiNapoli simultaneously served on the board of the First Housing Development Corp. of Florida, which contracts with the corporation, while he was head of the state agency.

“Had they looked into DiNapoli’s background, they might have found a recent history of financial troubles,” the Times wrote on Thursday. “In the eight years before he was appointed by DeSantis, he lost his job with UBS in New York City, filed for bankruptcy, had his Ocala home foreclosed on and had his bank accounts garnished by debtors.”

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