JACKSONVILLE — Two weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis reinstated the executive director of Florida’s affordable housing organization, the corporation’s board may consider disciplinary action or recommend firing the governor’s ally.
An internal inspector general’s report found sufficient evidence that Michael DiNapoli, executive director of the Florida Housing Finance Corp., engaged in inappropriate behavior by the organization’s standards that included yelling at employees, interrupting them, and threatening their job security.
Almost 10% of the corporation’s staff, 15 employees, have left or been fired from the organization during DiNapoli’s six month tenure, but the inspector general could not be sure all exits were due to the boss’ behavior.
The report was presented to the FHFC board’s audit committee Thursday during its meeting in Jacksonville. The full board is expected to review the findings Friday and could consider further disciplinary action against DiNapoli, who makes $185,000 a year in his post.
“The Office of Inspector General looked at each of the examples objectively in light of the policy and concluded that the interruptions of conversations and comments made by [DiNapoli] were reasonably perceived by the witnesses as disrespectful, humiliating or offensive,” said Chris Hirst, inspector general of the publicly funded corporation, which handles more than $2 billion in state and federal housing dollars.
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The corporation’s audit committee voted to accept the report and its findings Thursday, pushing it forward to the full board. The report, not yet released to the public, additionally recommends the board review and define the process of hiring any new staff after failing to follow the corporation’s own guidelines when hiring DiNapoli.
The Florida Housing Finance Corporation is the lead organization in implementing the recently passed “Live Local Act” that will put $711 million toward affordable housing and rental programs. All told, the organization creates almost $6 billion in economic activity in Florida’s housing sector, according to its annual report.
DiNapoli began working as FHFC executive director in February after DeSantis recommended him for the job. Less than six months later, board Chair Mario Facella suspended him with pay after allegations arose of inappropriate workplace behavior.
DeSantis reinstated him in August, telling Politico “the inquiry into FHFC to date has found nothing to justify the placement of Mr. DiNapoli on administrative leave. Moreover, it is clear that FHFC’s administrative actions were unsanctioned…”
A DeSantis spokesman deepened the battle lines over DiNapoli following Thursday’s meeting. Although board members are appointed by DeSantis and confirmed by the state Senate, the governor’s press secretary, Jeremy Redfern, went on the attack.
“If anyone wonders what the deep state looks like, this is it. It’s clear to us that at least some members of this Board believe they can wield unchecked power to recklessly disparage a public official and tarnish his reputation without basic fairness and due process,” Redfern said. “The Board is clearly incapable of exercising prudent judgment.”
He added, “We will explore every available tool to ensure proper management and oversight of the board and its staff, including the Inspector General, and to ensure further that this agency ultimately remains accountable to the people of Florida.”
The board does not have the sole authority to hire or fire an executive director, meaning in the Friday meeting it can decide to ignore the report, explore disciplinary action or recommend his dismissal to the Secretary of Commerce, J. Alex Kelly, who also serves as DeSantis’ interim chief-of-staff.
DeSantis’ previous chief-of-staff, James Uthmeier, has taken a leave to serve as campaign manager of the governor’s struggling bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
What were the allegations against DiNapoli?
Allegations centered around two provisions – a FHFC policy regarding appropriate workplace behavior and a portion of the Civil Rights Act protecting women and minorities from harassment.
The report found the allegations supported violation of the housing policy but did not find enough evidence to support allegations that DiNapoli specifically targeted women, Hirst said.
The investigation spanned from July 5 to Aug. 29, during which time the Office of Inspector General interviewed 22 current and previous members of staff, as well as two outside individuals.
Florida Housing Policy 6.01 is meant to broadly protect staff, Hirst said. Complainants alleged DiNapoli yelled and interrupted employees, made “sexist or misogynistic” comments, made “inappropriate comments on weight” and threatened staff member jobs, Hirst said.
“Staff stated they did not feel valued, trusted or respected, the subject does not listen to them and his expectations for them are not known,” Hirst said. “Staff also voiced their fear over interactions with the subject and fear over being fired for doing their job.”
Based on the number of witnesses and the “pervasive nature of the allegation,” the inspector general found enough evidence to support violation of the policy.
The second allegation dealt with Title XII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Complainants alleged DiNapoli created a “hostile work environment through harassment of female staff,” but Hirst said the office did not find sufficient evidence to support the claim.
The behavior described met three of four requirements under the act, Hirst said.
“The office of the inspector general was unable to determine that the conduct by [DiNapoli] was discriminatory against protected class,” Hirst said. “However the conduct is severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive.”
Report finds corporation did not follow hiring procedure
The inspector general’s office report outlined new findings regarding DiNapoli’s potential appearances of conflicts of interest, but it also found the corporation did not follow its own hiring procedures when accepting DiNapoli for the position.
The corporation did not receive a resume or application, interview other candidates or check previous employment references – all of which are required under its employment selection policy, Hirst said.
Candidates went through a vetting process when the corporation hired the previous executive director, Trey Price, Hirst said. Board members in attendance said they assumed the checks had already been done because of DiNapoli’s previous position with the Department of Economic Opportunity.
Facella, the board chairman, said the initial “ask” was for the board to vote on the governor’s recommendation at the next available meeting, but he delayed it in order for each member to meet with DiNapoli personally.
“It’s unfortunate that the assumption was that other things in terms of vetting were being done or were done, so that really the last key piece was each of you to meet him, interview him, and obviously ask whatever questions you had,” Facella said at Thursday’s meeting. “…It’s definitely a big miss for us.”
The report recommended for future hires that the corporation put its practices in line with other financial corporations, Hirst said.
“The totality of information received during the course of this investigation reveal a pattern of behavior and/or management style of the subject which has elevated Florida housing’s overall risk and increase of potential threat of corporate instability.”
USA Today Network-Florida Capital Bureau reporter John Kennedy contributed to this report.