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Are Housing Commissioners Living High On The Hog At Taxpayer's Expense?

LOS ANGELES (CBS) — They oversee housing for some of LA's neediest families.

But a CBS2 News investigation has found some LA housing commissioners living the good life on taxpayer money. Spending tens of thousands on fancy hotels and lavish restaurants. David Goldstein reports.

"I'm making enchiladas."

It's dinner time for Italia Coronel who lives in public housing with her mother and 5-year-old daughter Eileen.

She's on unemployment, her mother Social Security. Together they take home about $1,500 a month. Enough for this basic meal.

"Could you afford Brazilian steak. Shrimp? Salmon?"

"No, I wish I could."

But we obtained documents showing some of the commissioners who oversee Italia's public housing are enjoying that kind of food...using taxpayer money.

"What kind of message do you think that sends to you that they're spending that kind of money? That we ain't shi*. That they're using us for their own personal gain."

The Housing Authority of the City of LA manages 6500 public housing units like the ones here at Pico Gardens in East LA. Thousands of LA's neediest families live here...many worried about putting a roof over their head or where their next meal will come from. But we've found some housing commissioners spend more on travel than some of these people will make in an entire year!

The commissioners oversee a billion dollars of taxpayer money, mostly from the federal government.

They're appointed by the mayor. It's a parttime job. They make no salary. Just $50 a meeting. And have to deal with an ever shrinking budget.

But we found they spent $158,000 over the past two years on travel and fine dining. Mostly attenting housing related conferences at swanky hotels.

We found receipts from the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., Miami Beach and Laguna Niguel.

A room here at the Ritz in Laguna certainly isn't the Motel 6. According to this receipt, it cost taxpayers more than $400 a night. Nearly $2,000 for a four day conference attended by Commissioner Margarita Garr.

"The purpose of these conferences is to enhance our knowledge as commissioners."

We also obtained documents showing at least three commissioners received cash advances of hundreds of dollars in per diem on some trips to cover all meals while on the road. But then used Housing Authority credit cards for room service and restaurants. What's called double dipping.

Including a $30 shrimp dinner. $25 salmon entree. We found it in the travel documents for Commissioner Alicia Maldonado. It shows she received $319.50 in per diem...then charged this $167.00 dinner for four people, including herself, to the Housing Authority credit card.

"Is that double dipping?"

"No, I don't think so."

She at first denied it. And then called it an oversight.

"You're correct. It would have been better to pay with the cash I had in my hand."

Documents also apparently show Commissioner Maria Del Angel did the same thing...getting a cash advance of $390.50 for a trip to Washington last September. Then charging a nearly $250.00 dinner for a group of people, including herself.

"You can't get a per diem and then go to a restaurant and charge that can you?"

"Yes, no?"

"I guess you're right on that."

"Is that double dipping?"

Bob Stern, the former chief counsel for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, says you can't have it both ways.

"In my view, you either take the per diem or you charge your meals up to the per diem but you don't do both."

And there were some great meals. We found this receipt for a $1,000 dinner in Washington, D.C. attended by several commissioners and others who were attending a convention. It was at Fogo de Chao, a chain of Brazilian steak houses with one in Beverly Hills...known for its 15 cuts of beef.

The receipt shows 12 people sat at the table...ordering 12 steak dinners for $49.50 a piece!

"Could you spend $49.50 a person to go to a restaurant like that? No. Most of us, all we know is Jack in the Box and McDonalds."

They also had 16 Caipirinhas, the Brazilian national cocktail. Made with a special rum.

$9.75 a drink!

According to Housing Authority policy, company credit cards cannot be used for alcoholic beverages.

"Do you know credit can't be used for alcohol?"


But three commissioners split the bill, including Commissioner Garr. And put it on their credit cards...after getting their cash advance.

"Who's minding the store?"

Housing Authority President Rudolph Montiel said because of our investigation, he's reassessing conference travel and looking into the allegations of double dipping.

"I think we will undertake a rigorous examination of these expenses and determine what if any expendes have to be reimbursed and then ask the commissioners to reimburse these monies."

We told the mayor who appointed the commissioners. He wants to see if all the $158,000 in taxpayer money was well spent.

"I want to know when it was it was used."

It comes as good news to residents of public housing —

"It's ridiculous they get that kind of money."

— who hope the money spent on good food and fancy hotels on the road can be put to better use at home.

David Goldstein, CBS2 News

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