The federally funded St. Pete Housing Authority (SPHA) sent a mass e-mail last week urging recipients to “reach out to your Congressional Representatives and demand that a fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill for HUD be passed.” The SPHA is funded by HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The e-mail was sent by Larry Gonzalez, the SPHA’s Housing Choice Voucher Officer. In his e-mail, Gonzalez also insisted that “Congress must agree to a funding bill” to fund his agency. The e-mail went to 945 landlords who receive housing vouchers as payment from welfare recipients, and then hand in those vouchers for payment from SPHA.
The Guardian contacted Gonzalez to ask who authorized him to send the e-mail. “I have sent your request to our CEO, Mr. Tony Love,” Gonzalez responded. “You will be contacted as soon as possible.”
“I authorized the e-mail,” Love said in a phone call to the Guardian. “We were inundated by calls from landlords worried about whether they would be paid. We just wanted to clarify the financial situation [during the government shutdown] to those landlords.”
Love’s answer thus only addressed the first paragraph of the e-mail, but not the second. When pressed on the e-mail’s request for the landlords to take political action, Love first said he saw nothing wrong with the e-mail before saying “maybe we should have used different language. Maybe that was a mistake.”
This isn’t the first time a federally funded Tampa Bay area housing agency uses agency resources and staff time to urge citizens to take political action on their behalf. In 2011, the Pinellas County Housing Authority sent an e-mail telling people to “call your Representative NOW and urge him/her to oppose” a particular measure that was before Congress at that time. The e-mail further told readers that the “the National Housing Trust Fund is being mischaracterized” by a member of Congress named in the e-mail.
Love agreed to ask his agency attorney if the e-mail crossed the line in to impermissible advocacy, and provide the Guardian with the attorney’s answer. We never received that legal opinion, despite a follow-up request.
Should government agencies use tax dollars to urge citizens to take political action on that agency’s behalf?
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