Turmoil grips Florida agency reviewing discrimination cases, drawing HUD censure

On housing cases, the commission traditionally works in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. | John Shinkle/POLITICO

TALLAHASSEE — A small state office charged with investigating discrimination complaints in Florida is in turmoil.

The Florida Commission on Human Relations has been suspended from a partnership with U.S. housing authorities and ordered to return nearly $200,000 in federal funds. The discord has some commission members pushing to fire their executive director and has drawn the attention of Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose office is responsible for appointing the 12-member panel.

Executive Director Michelle Wilson is pushing back and has claimed that one of the commissioners seeking her ouster was trying to take her job. In an interview this week, she said the agency is making strides to fix ongoing problems, which she blamed in part on past budget cuts and high staff turnover.

The commission, which has a budget of roughly $5 million, investigates complaints of employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and discrimination involving hotels and restaurants. Individuals seeking to sue in state court over employment discrimination must have their case investigated by the commission before they can file a lawsuit.

On housing cases, the commission traditionally works in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Someone who files a housing discrimination complaint with one agency has their case handled by both.

But a 2015 change in how federal authorities process and send complaints has created a growing backlog of cases, overwhelming the state office, which had its staffing cut during the last recession, Wilson said.

“There are a lot of issues going on here,” said Wilson, who has been executive director since 2011 and has worked at the commission for 17 years. “I’m not disputing that at all. We’ve got a lot of things we’re trying to get done here. What we don’t want are internal distractions.”

The case backlog got so serious that HUD at first stopped sending inquiries to Florida and called on the state to make a series of changes in how the commission worked.

In 2018, the commission hired temporary workers in an effort to keep up, but couldn’t keep them on the job. The backlog of complaints eventually grew so large that HUD in April suspended Florida from the Fair Housing Assistance Program. The suspension effectively ended coordination between the state and federal government.

Carlos Osegueda, a regional HUD official, put the blame on individuals running the office.

“Absent fundamental changes in the management and administration of the organization, history indicates the agency will continue to fall behind,” Osegueda wrote in a letter notifying Florida of its suspension.

One of the main federal complaints centered on caseloads for investigators,

HUD had provided nearly $177,000 to the commission increase staffing, but the GOP-led Florida Legislature blocked the commission from using the funds. Lawmakers didn’t want grant money spent on recurring expenses such as salaries, Wilson said.

HUD demanded the money back, but didn’t get it until this spring, when DeSantis and the Legislature quietly signed off on a budget amendment.

“Our only interest is to help the Florida Commission on Human Relations to improve its performance so the citizens of Florida can be assured they have a forceful and effective fair housing advocate working on their behalf,” HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan said when asked about the state’s suspension.

The discord prompted three commissioners to investigate. After meeting with Osegueda, they recommended a vote of no-confidence in Wilson.

The full commission has not yet acted on the recommendation, which wasn’t put in writing.

A commission meeting in June was canceled due to a lack of quorum because the panel currently has four vacancies. No follow-up meeting has been scheduled.

On June 5, Wilson emailed the commission warning of a pervasive “toxic environment” on the panel. She said that her employees worried about how she was being mistreated.

“We have reached a pinnacle of division and disruption to the likes of which I have never experienced in my professional career of twenty-six years,” Wilson wrote.

Employees have told her the commission “is no longer a place where they can come and make a difference in the lives of so many people that we serve daily,” she wrote.

She also said she feared that one of her bosses, Commissioner Latanya Peterson, “has motives” to take her job.

Peterson fired back with her own email to commissioners.

“The email rebuke we received is not only unprofessional, but divisive and shows a genuine lack of leadership by our employee,” Peterson said. She questioned Wilson’s performance and personnel moves.

Peterson, who unsuccessfully ran for the Clay County School Board last year, said instead of responding to problems in the agency, Wilson was “actively spreading innuendo and gossip.”

In an interview, Peterson said she has no personal complaint with Wilson, but said “she’s not doing what needs to be done.”

Peterson said she has no interest in being executive director.

DeSantis is aware of the problems, said his spokesperson, Helen Aguirre Ferre. “Governor DeSantis takes this situation very seriously and is studying options to remedy the situation.”

Wilson, who earns nearly $104,000 a year, said some of the office’s ongoing problems will be resolved in the next few months after legislators this year agreed to fund eight new positions to clear the backlog of housing cases.

“To me, it appears we are going in the right direction,” Wilson said.

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Lee Fry