Naked City

A Harsh Indictment

It was just last month that Florita Bell Griffin, a governing board member of the Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), boasted before a commission of state lawmakers that an FBI investigation into her alleged misconduct had hit a dead end. Griffin, appointed to the board in 1995 by Gov. George W. Bush, further declared that if prosecutors were looking for the real culprits responsible for pushing lucrative subsidies into questionable affordable housing projects, they needed look no further than the lawmakers she was testifying in front of, members of the state Sunset Advisory Commission.

But last Wednesday, a Houston grand jury charged Griffin as the bad egg behind at least one deal. She was arrested under an indictment accusing her of conspiring to accept land and money in exchange for using her influence on the board to win millions in tax credits for a proposed Bryan apartment complex in 1997. Two other defendants, Terrence Roberts and Joe Walker, have been charged as co-conspirators.

One builder involved in the scheme, Barry L. Hammond, admitted to federal prosecutors in January 1999 that he and others included Griffin as a secret partner in a corporation that applied for 1997 tax credits. Hammond was sentenced to prison for theft and bribery. But Griffin has adamantly denied any wrongdoing since the investigation was launched, meanwhile employing private investigators to dig up dirt on her fellow board members at TDHCA.

The case against Griffin, described in the jury's 14-page indictment, illustrates the seducing power of the millions of dollars available to developers through the state's Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. Historically, the TDHCA board has exercised only token oversight of the allocation process, leaving it up to staff and the tax-credit subcommittee, which Griffin served on, to select projects for approval. Connections between developers and board members run deep, as noted by a recent report from the Sunset Commission, and it was but a small, albeit illegal, step Griffin would have had to take to cut herself in on a profitable deal. Every year, dozens of corporations like the one in which Griffin was allegedly involved spring from the earth, proposing tax-credit projects, and sometimes, as was the case in an Austin project approved for tax credits just last year, the identities of the real investors are concealed.

Attention was drawn to Griffin and her alleged accomplices, however, by partners who were apparently deceived and excluded as the deal in Bryan progressed. The first victim of the plot, according to the indictment, was Kenneth Mitchell, a Ft. Worth developer who provided the up-front capital for the project but later blew the whistle on the alleged scheme. According to the indictment, Griffin, Roberts, and Walker reaped huge profits off Mitchell by selling him land for a building site at a price more than seven times greater than what they had just purchased it for.

Griffin now faces charges of conspiracy, acceptance of a bribe, theft, mail fraud, and money laundering. If convicted, she could be sentenced to as many as 55 years in prison, and fined up to $2 million. Roberts and Walker also face substantial fines and jail time. TDHCA board chair Michael Jones said the board will take no action to prevent Griffin from serving the rest of her term, which runs through January, 2001, and Gov. Bush's office has said the same.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Florita Bell Griffin, Texas Department of Housing and Community Services, Low IncomeHousing Tax Credit Program, Terrence Roberts, Joe Walker, Sunset Advisory Commission, Kenneth Mitchell, Michael Jones

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