FBI investigating Missouri housing deals

Saturday, June 20, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The director of Missouri's housing agency confirmed Friday that he has been interviewed by the FBI as part of an investigation related to low-income housing projects but said he was not the focus of the investigation.

Pete Ramsel, executive director of the Missouri Housing Development Commission, said he was interviewed in person by the FBI last year about housing development issues related to the state agency.

He said the questions dealt with activities that happened more than a year ago but he declined to elaborate, citing a request by the FBI that he keep the information confidential.

"I know there is an FBI investigation going on," Ramsel said.

Ramsel said that the housing commission -- uses tax credits and tax-free bonds to help finance the construction of affordable houses and apartments -- operates in accordance with the law and is "absolutely above-board."

FBI spokesman Joel Sealer in Kansas City, where the housing agency is based, said he could neither confirm nor deny an investigation related to Missouri housing projects.

State Treasurer Clint Zweifel, who recently became chairman of the housing commission, was informed of the investigation earlier this month by Ramsel, said Zweifel spokesman Jon Galloway.

"As to what's being investigated, we do not know, and neither does the treasurer," Galloway said.

Zweifel plans to announce a proposed expansion of the conduct policy for the housing commission Tuesday, Galloway said. The agency had announced plans to rewrite its policies regarding potential conflicts of interest in 2007 after then-commissioner Bill Luetkenhaus sold land at a profit to a developer who had done business with the commission. But the promised ethics policy update never has been adopted, Galloway said.

Luetkenhaus, a St. Charles County real estate broker, bought a 20-acre parcel of land for $931,794 in September 2006 and sold it two months later to Columbia developer Jeff Smith for more than $1.7 million. As a housing commissioner, Luetkenhaus voted on other development projects submitted by Smith. But Smith did not seek state aid to develop the property he bought from Luetkenhaus. The housing commission determined the sale didn't violate any state statutes.

Luetkenhaus said Friday that he has not been interviewed by the FBI and asserted that his deal was more publicly transparent than others that also involved former commissioners.

"In the past, bankers and other people on the commission did business with developers and there was no disclosure," Luetkenhaus said. "I was the first one to submit a piece of paper and say I sold a piece of property to a developer."

The housing commission also made news in 2006 after authorities took custody of several illegal immigrants on their way to work at a St. Charles County housing development being financed by the state agency. The contractors were changed before the project was finished.

Last year, Missouri Auditor Susan Montee issued a couple of reports faulting the housing commission. She said the agency was not properly verifying the value of donated properties. A separate state audit concluded that Missouri's tax credits for low-income housing had grown too costly without adequate controls.

Montee's chief of staff, Joe Martin, said Friday that the office is almost done with yet another audit of the housing development agency. But Martin said he could not discuss its findings.

The FBI investigation involving housing developments is at least the second connected to Missouri government. Earlier this year, several lawmakers confirmed they had been interviewed by the FBI about allegations that legislative leaders demanded campaign contributions in exchange for prestigious committee posts and Capitol perks. No charges have been filed.

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