The Woodlands Inn bills itself as an upscale resort and for Carl R. Greene, it was the ideal place to hold annual retreats to discuss how to house Philadelphia's poorest residents while dining on filet mignon and creole crabcakes.
In 2009 alone, the Philadelphia Housing Authority spent more than $76,000 on two retreats, not including $3,350 paid to Ballard Spahr for one of its partners to advise senior staff on government housing regulations.
In the evening, Greene inisted that everyone participate in group events, including karaoke singing at the resort's Executive Lounge or dancing at its Evolution Nightclub.
Attendees in 2009 also got gifts - a canvas laptop bag filled with PHA promotional items including a fleece jacket and long-sleeve polo shirt with the PHA logo.
Michael P. Kelly, who took over the agency after Greene was fired last September over his lavish spending and complaints about harassing female employees, said a similar retreat "won't happen on my watch."
Oct. 28, 2009, was a typical day for 42 PHA employees meeting at the creekside boutique hotel near Wilkes-Barre. They started promptly at 7:30 a.m. in the Presidential Room with a light breakfast and snacks, which cost the housing agency $2,002. A lunch buffet cost $1,497, and dinner, a barbecue on the Woodlands' deck, was $1,800.
And there was an extra expense that day.
Sharon Wilson Geno, a partner with Ballard Spahr, put in for 10 hours of legal work at a rate of $335 an hour, according to PHA records obtained by The Inquirer. PHA also paid her hotel bill.
The Philadelphia law firm has billed the agency $11.7 million since 2007, more than any other firm.
The housing authority's spending - in particular, its reliance on outside attorneys - is the subject of ongoing audits by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Last Friday, HUD took control of the housing agency. HUD has hired the consulting firm KPMG to conduct a forensic audit of all aspects of the agency, while its office of inspector general is finishing a separate examination of PHA's legal billings.
Kelly, PHA's administrative receiver, already has vowed to rein in PHA's legal bills. Last year, the agency paid $10.3 million to law firms for legal services, far above what other large housing authorities across the country spend. It has paid $38.5 million since 2007.
Beginning in 2000, Greene took his senior staff on retreats of four to five days at the resort for an annual planning conference. In 2009, PHA held two retreats: a five-day conference in October that was $45,660.62 for lodging, food, and conference costs; and a four-day meeting in April for $30,475.19, according to PHA records.
Kelly, who is on loan for a year from the New York City Housing Authority, said senior staff needs to work together on a strategic plan. But, he added, "anything perceived to be or is indeed excessive will not be planned for or budgeted."
"There has to be a higher awareness, recognition, sensitivity and responsiveness to how we do business here," he said in a recent interview.
Greene's attorney, Clifford Haines, defended the annual events at the resort, saying there was serious work done at the Woodlands.
"One purpose of the conference was to develop a yearly plan as required by the board," Haines said in an email reply to questions.
He said Geno "is an expert in HUD programs and regulations."
PHA spokeswoman Nichole Tillman said Geno helped train staffers at the October 2009 event on government program requirements.
Geno did not return calls or emails seeking comment, nor did the firm's chairman, Arthur Makadon.
According to a conference agenda for the 2009 fall retreat, the sessions on Oct. 28 covered federal stimulus projects; community-based services and service-enriched housing; energy efficiency, and community planning.
Brian A. Hudson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, said he had spoke at one of the 2009 sessions at the Woodlands.
Hudson said his agency, which promotes affordable housing through the use of federal low-income housing tax credits, does not charge housing authorities when its executives make presentations at such events. Nor did he stay overnight before returning to Harrisburg.
"It's part of our mission," said Hudson, whose agency had worked with PHA on financing projects. "We do that routinely."
A charter bus took everyone to and from the resort, at a cost of about $2,000. None of the employees was permitted by Greene to drive up on his own, workers said.
The Woodlands has cigar bar, a brick-oven pizzeria as well as a Japanese restaurant known as the Shogun, where PHA staffers got to dine one evening in 2009 on squid salad, red snapper, lobster tail, spicy tuna, and shrimp tempura. The tab was $1,498.
But some PHA senior staffers viewed the annual retreats as grueling. Entire days were filled with meetings and break-out sessions, they said. Some years had a theme, like incorporating "green" technology into the agency's buildings.
While the inn had amenities like wooded paths, a spa and indoor pool, PHA managers had no chance to enjoy them, employees said.
"There was no reason to be there," said one former employee. "We could have done this at the Doubletree in Philadelphia."