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Contractor defends work as loan eligibility questioned

| Thursday, Nov. 7, 2002

A Penn Hills man is suffering the fallout from a federal investigation of the municipality's housing rehabilitation program.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have asked Penn Hills officials to explain a $15,000 loan made to William A. Cichinelli for renovations to his Rosanne Drive home. Municipal planning department officials told HUD that Cichinelli performed the work himself.

That would mean that Cichinelli had violated the rules of his union — Local 526 of the Cement Masons — which Cichinelli denies.

"Under union rules, we're not allowed to contract on our own and we're not allowed to solicit our work outside of the union — that all has to be done through the local," Cichinelli said. "I could lose my position in the union hall."

Instead, he said his father, William F. Cichinelli, did most of the work.

HUD officials already have warned the municipality that the loan could be disallowed if the proper documentation is not shown.

"In the project in question, a contractor was given a $15,000 loan to make improvements to his home," said Lynn Daniels, director of community development in HUD's Pittsburgh Office, adding that data in the file indicated that the applicant was income eligible at the time he applied for the loan.

The contractor was instructed to keep receipts of materials that were purchased, which local inspectors say could have easily cost double the amount of the $15,000 loan. Receipts totaling about $8,000 were found during HUD's monitoring check in September, but according to HUD, they did not correspond to the three separate $5,000 payments the municipality made for the project, consisting of a new master bedroom and bath, with a garage underneath.

"I was not the contractor and I didn't do most of the work — that would have been my dad," the younger Cichinelli said, although he added that "I might have helped him with a little of it."

He said his father, who served as president of Local 526 for 14 years, now is retired, and worked on the addition sporadically — one of the reasons why the receipts were slow coming in at times.

"He's 67 years old — I'm not going to kill him with that kind of work," Cichinelli said.

After receiving an extension on the deadline to respond to HUD's concerns, Penn Hills officials say they forwarded more than $16,000 worth of receipts for the home improvement project last week, part of a 38-page packet that now is under review.

"The receipts are all there and the money's all accounted for," Cichinelli said. "Anything else is just a total lie."

Penn Hills Principal Planner Christopher Blackwell has told HUD officials that the integrity of the loan and scope of the project should not be called into question.

"HUD's monitoring report implies that the $15,000 was not supported and causes the reader to come to the conclusion that something illegal may have occurred," Blackwell stated. "This is untrue. The addition itself is enough to support the payments."

In June, HUD froze all new housing rehabilitation loans in Penn Hills until questions were answered concerning 13 of 113 loans the municipality had issued from 1997 to 2001. If HUD finds this loan was made improperly, Penn Hills could be ordered to repay the money. Since 1997, the municipality has had to repay $47,000 worth of housing rehabilitation loans that were declared ineligible.

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