Vision Villains?

The director of Vision Village project pleads guilty for failing to monitor the doomed venture.

Vision Villains?

When Stacey Shorter abruptly quit her job with the city and left town more than a year ago, the official line was that a family matter precipitated her departure. But last week's dramatic turn of events in the Vision Village case may suggest otherwise.

Indictments were handed down last week against Shorter and Preston Ervin, a former political aide to ex-City Council Member Eric Mitchell, who are accused of pilfering funds earmarked for the city-backed Vision Village project. The Travis Co. district attorney's office, which has been investigating Vision Village for more than a year, last week secured a guilty plea from the project's official leader -- the Rev. George V. Clark of Mount Zion Baptist Church.

In a rare courtroom moment, the respected 74-year-old East Austin minister took the rap for failing to monitor the project, a third-degree felony. Clark was chairman of A&R Vision, which assumed ownership of the 190-acre East Austin site (the former Travis State School) in May 1997 and agreed to develop 156 units of housing on the site. Clark was sentenced to five years of deferred adjudication -- a lighter form of probation -- and ordered to pay $118,000 in restitution. Clark has already paid $85,000 and has agreed to testify against Ervin and Shorter, both of whom worked for him at A&R Vision.

Needless to say, the city is suffering the embarrassing consequences of a lax oversight system, with nothing to show for the $1.25 million in federal housing money that the city loaned Vision Village. Travis Co. kicked in an additional $200,000 to go toward the land purchase. All told, Vision Village has used up more than $5 million in private and public money; last week's indictments focus on nearly $1 million that has gone missing.

The project won unanimous City Council support in October 1996, after concerted efforts by then-Council Member Mitchell and former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, who had originally conceived of Vision Village as an innovative multi-age housing and social services center. At the time, the city's financial pledge sparked controversy; other nonprofits feared they would lose scarce public funding for their own projects to what was, at the time, little more than an idea.

Vision Village showed signs of doom early on. According to a Statesman account published last year, a former city real estate manager wrote a memo in December 1996 -- five months before the property was acquired -- that warned of the project's instability. It was at that point that Clark stepped in, securing $2.5 million in private financing on top of the city's loan. After being given numerous reprieves by city staff -- which had originally declared A&R Vision in default on its city loan in 1998 -- the case was finally referred last year to Austin police and the district attorney.

Last week, city officials stopped short of accepting blame for the project but vowed to put more teeth into Austin's oversight of public-private housing ventures. "We feel terrible that this has happened because there is such a need for this type of housing in the community," said Michael McDonald, acting chief of staff for City Manager Toby Futrell. He said a stepped-up monitoring system would include increased technical training programs for those who obtain government money.

As the prosecution's case against Ervin and Shorter unfolds, evidence may point to greed, rather than a lack of expertise, as the contributing factor to Vision Village's downfall. Ervin, the former president of A&R Vision, faces the more serious charges. The three grand jury indictments accuse Ervin of submitting fraudulent requests for nearly $300,000 within a single week in September 1999, ostensibly to pay off company debts; pocketing more than $200,000 in project funds; and redirecting checks and money, totaling between $20,000 and $100,000, for personal use. On the latter, the money was supposed to have gone into A&R Vision's account as payments made by Envirotrans Solutions Inc., a consulting firm owned by Stacey Dukes-Rhone, a former Capital Metro board member whose company operated out of the Vision Village site.

Shorter, who served as the initial project administrator, faces three second-degree felony counts of submitting fraudulent requests for withdrawals on three different occasions between June and September of 1997, totaling more than $400,000. City officials are quick to point out that Shorter was not a city employee during her tenure with A&R Vision in 1997. She had formerly worked with the Austin Convention Center and Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, and later returned to City Hall in October 1998 to help create Austin's first community court. She then served as the court's administrator until May 2001. Assistant District Attorney Clay Strange declined to comment on Shorter's abrupt resignation from the city, which came shortly before the onset of the criminal probe. But he did allow that details surrounding her departure might be used as evidence in the case.

As for Clark, District Attorney Ronnie Earle had nothing but praise for the minister. "Rev. Clark is a revered leader [in the] community," he said at a press conference following the minister's plea. Asked why he was extolling the virtues of someone who took years to own up to wrongdoing, Earle said, "Sometimes that takes a while ... In taking responsibility for his actions, Rev. Clark has taken the high road."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Vision Village, Preston Ervin, Stacey Shorter, George Clark, Mount Zion, A&R Vision

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