Naming a new leader to Los Angeles' troubled housing authority three months ago was supposed to help calm a scandal over excessive perks and outsized pay at an agency charged with sheltering the city's poorest residents.
But this week, Los Angeles officials faced fresh questions over a pay package for the new agency chief that is more than $100,000 a year above a new limit set by the federal government.
Washington regulators this week announced a plan to permanently cap federal funding for housing authority executive salaries at $155,000 a year, acknowledging that some compensation packages had become "clearly excessive."
Nevertheless, Los Angeles officials plan to stick with the $260,000 base salary given to executive director Douglas Guthrie, saying they will get around the cap by tapping non-federal agency funds. Guthrie's compensation, agency spokesman Eric Brown said, is comparable with other "agencies within the city."
One tenants advocate called the agency's response "ridiculous," saying activists have been struggling to persuade housing officials to spend more non-federal funds on repairs at public housing projects. "If HUD wants to set a cap, they should set a firm cap, not just a symbolic cap that they know people are going to get around," said Becky Dennison, co-director of the group Los Angeles Community Action Network.
Officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development said they do not plan to stop agencies from boosting pay with local revenue sources, such as real estate income. "HUD's overriding priority is that the money we provide be used to house low-income families," spokeswoman Donna White said.
HUD's announcement also reignited questions about the pay given to the L.A. agency's ousted former executive director, Rudolf Montiel. The federal government reported his compensation for 2010 was far higher than the $450,000 a year city officials previously acknowledged.
Montiel received $606,000 in salary and other compensation in 2010, according to HUD, which cited information obtained from Los Angeles officials. A spokesman for the city's housing authority refused to clarify the discrepancy, saying officials can't discuss Montiel's pay because of a settlement agreement reached when he left the agency. The settlement included a $1.2-million payout to Montiel, triggering an outcry from critics and some elected officials.
Montiel disputed the new federal figures. In a text message, he wrote that HUD "grossly and irresponsibly" overstated his 2010 compensation. He said his salary that year was $278,000, not counting his housing allowance and bonus and was "duly approved in public session by the [housing authority] board ... with full knowledge by HUD and consent by Mayor Villaraigosa's office."
On top of his 2010 salary, Montiel said he received a $50,000 bonus and a $43,200 housing allowance. Releasing the larger, inaccurate numbers, he said, is "like inciting a lynch mob after someone who did nothing wrong."
Montiel was fired last year after a bitter controversy over attempts to evict tenants who protested at his home. Before reaching a settlement on his payout, Montiel accused board members of retaliating against him for alleging that board members had "double-dipped" — been reimbursed twice — on their travel expenses.
City Controller Wendy Greuel, a mayoral candidate who is auditing the housing authority, criticized the lack of clarity on Montiel's pay package, saying it "shouldn't be a mystery."
"The reason HUD set these caps was the controversy created in Los Angeles," she said.
HUD's new report concluded that the L.A.'s housing chief's pay in 2010 was second only to Atlanta's Housing Authority president, Renee Glover. HUD said she earned $644,241, although Glover disputed those figures, saying the total was $588,850. Some of the other top earning officials, according to HUD, were in Philadelphia, San Diego and Vallejo, Calif.
Today, Guthrie's compensation package at the L.A. agency provides 27 days of vacation and sick time off, as well as 15 days of "professional time" — compensation for attending night meetings or weekend events. He also gets a car with free gas.
Guthrie declined to discuss the terms of his pay package. But Brown, his agency's spokesman, said Guthrie's compensation was based on the need to attract an "extraordinarily capable" leader for a large, complex organization.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) who has criticized housing authority salaries, said he plans to talk to HUD about drafting "more meaningful limitations." One possibility may be to require housing authorities to forfeit some federal funds if they don't comply with the cap, he said in a statement.
"Federal taxpayers send between $6 billion and $7 billion to the housing authorities every year," he said. "There have to be some checks on spending."