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The District of Columbia Housing Finance Agency regularly hands millions of dollars to developers in exchange for housing commitments. But now Derek Ford, the agency’s new chairman, is taking a look at much smaller exchanges: how staffers use agency credit cards.
“Each and every expenditure, we’re going to review,” Ford tells LL.
Ford should start with Harry Sewell, DCHFA’s executive director. Sewell charged $47,982.40 to his DCHFA card from 2011 to April 2013, according to credit card records obtained by LL through the Freedom of Information Act.
The expenses make being executive director of the DCHFA look awfully appealing. Sewell rang up $1,927.23 at a Miami Beach steakhouse and $712.85 at a nearby seafood restaurant, and it didn’t cost him a penny. It’s hard to tell how many of these meals were genuinely for business purposes. Real estate developers aren’t known for their frugal tastes, after all. But even if these lavish meals and hotel stays were necessary—and LL would love to hear how $5,689.22 for five nights at a Miami Beach hotel increased the District’s affordable housing supply—Sewell also used his agency credit card for expenses that were strictly personal.
$13.89 at Miami liquor store I Love Liquor? Charge it! $2,300.87 at a Pennsylvania hotel? Put it on the plastic! Ditto for extra baggage charges for his two children and a woman he describes as his “companion.” In less than three years, Sewell spent $2,631.18 on the agency’s credit card for expenses he was eventually required to reimburse.
Sewell says he isn’t prepared to explain two-year-old expenses. But he tells LL that his use of the card for personal reasons is kosher, since he reimbursed DCHFA for the charges.
It’s good to be the boss. What other public employee could use an agency as their personal AmEx, then pay the charges back at their convenience? Remember, in May, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie fired one of his staffers for allegedly paying off bar tabs with McDuffie’s constituent service fund—and that guy tried to pay it back, too.
That also doesn’t explain Sewell’s charges that look personal, but aren’t listed as being paid back to DCHFA. There’s $60 spent to upgrade Sewell’s “companion” to a better seat on a flight, $970.75 spent in a Pennsylvania muffler shop, and $746.52 spent on a four-day car rental in D.C. Sewell didn’t respond to a request to give reasons for the charges.
In April, Sewell issued a memo on the agency’s credit cards procedures at Ford’s request. Ford says he’s aware of Sewell’s charges but wouldn’t talk about them, saying it’s a personnel issue.
Ford, who used to work in the District’s Office of the Inspector General, is promising a credit card policy with more stringent spending controls. He’s using the fate of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s board—beset by scandals over spending and nepotism—as an example of the risk unrestricted spending poses for DCHFA. In the meantime, he’s not going to ignore previous charges.
“Just because we don’t have a policy and procedure doesn’t mean you can do any damn thing with the credit card,” Ford says.
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Credit card photo by Shutterstock