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Missouri treasurer seeks housing agency ethics overhaul

Tuesday, June 23, 2009 | 6:08 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY  — The chairman of the state's housing development agency proposed a new ethics policy Tuesday that would bar financial relationships between developers and agency officials.

State Treasurer Clint Zweifel, who also leads the Missouri Housing Development Commission, said the ethics proposals come because of what he described as a failure by the commission to deal with ethics issues and to fulfill a campaign promise to make changes at the housing agency. It also comes as the FBI investigates low-income housing projects in Missouri.

"I think it just creates an unseemly environment, and really this is an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars," Zweifel said. "So in that case, I would prefer not to have any members of this commission that are really working with developers that are coming before the commission."

The proposed policy also would require applicants for state benefits to disclose all their business relationships, set up a waiting period before former agency workers could work for developers seeking state money and result in more documents being posted on the commission's Web site.

When conflicts do arise, commissioners and agency staff would need to disclose the issue to the entire commission during a public meeting and then recuse themselves. Violations of the ethics policies could leave developers ineligible to apply for state housing agency benefits.

The Missouri Housing Development Commission's members are the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state treasurer and six gubernatorial appointees. Zweifel became the commission's chairman last month. The housing agency uses tax credits and tax-free bonds to help finance the construction of affordable houses and apartments.

The housing agency's executive director told The Associated Press on Friday that he was interviewed by the FBI as part of an investigation over low-income housing projects. Pete Ramsel told the AP that he was not a subject of the investigation and that the questions dealt with activities that happened more than a year ago.

In 2007, the agency planned to implement new ethics rules after a commissioner sold land at a profit to a developer who had done business with the Housing Development Commission. Those changes were never implemented.

Although Zweifel's proposed policies target personal financial deals between commissioners and developers, he said currently it does not envision limiting political donations for the statewide elected officials serving on the board.

"My focus on this has been on personal financial interest to ensure we don't have commission members that are actually making a profit by doing business with developers," said Zweifel, who suggested that the housing agency could decide to extend the policy to campaign donations.

The housing commission also has been questioned about its effectiveness.

The state auditor last year released a couple of reports that raised concerns about the agency. One found that the commission was not properly verifying the value of donated properties, and another concluded that tax credits for low-income housing did not have adequate controls and had grown too costly.

Auditor Susan Montee is scheduled to release another audit of the agency Wednesday.

Zweifel said he wants the agency to become more efficient and plans to focus on coordinating the housing commission's development efforts with broader state economic development initiatives.

 


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