The Ramsey County Board on Tuesday formally accepted Commissioner Blake Huffman’s resignation after an investigation revealed that his defunct charity had received $60,000 from the county to buy two homes for needy families and then sold one of them to Huffman’s son Zach.
Alex Huffman, another of the commissioner’s six sons, acted as real estate agent on the sale and also profited off the deal.
Huffman, who had e-mailed his resignation last week, did not attend the meeting or respond to an e-mail message seeking comment Tuesday. His resignation is effective June 1.
Journey Home Minnesota, which started dissolving in January, had fallen behind on property taxes and struggled to repay contractors more than $160,000. Huffman has said the charity was in distress, forcing him to sell its properties.
County Board Chairman Jim McDonough said at Tuesday’s meeting that the county has hired an outside firm to investigate Huffman’s potential conflicts of interest and is working with the county attorney’s office to recover the $60,000 in funds it granted the nonprofit.
“We have committed to full transparency,” McDonough said.
No other commissioner spoke Tuesday about Huffman’s situation. But Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, who once worked in his office and volunteered for his charity, said in a Facebook post that she questioned the “moral integrity” of Journey Home Minnesota’s operations.
“Like many others, the news of Commissioner Huffman’s failures at Journey Home MN has left me feeling deeply betrayed both as a commissioner and as a veteran,” wrote MatasCastillo, who served in the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Army National Guard. “Every dollar of public resources he misused was a dollar that did not help someone in our community in need.”
Huffman, a retired vice president with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, has served on the Ramsey board for more than six years. He started the nonprofit in 2011, the year before he was elected to the board, with the promise of renting homes to veterans and single-parent families at below-market rates, according to the charity’s tax filings. Huffman, who sat on the Shoreview City Council at the time, was the charity’s unpaid executive director.
Ramsey County awarded the charity $60,000 in federally funded Community Development Block Grants in May 2012 to purchase two homes in New Brighton and White Bear Lake for renting to veterans.
According to Journey Home’s most recent public tax filings, it had $2.8 million in assets in 2016. Huffman served as chairman, and his wife, Joy, and son Noah then were on the governing board.
Earlier this year, the Star Tribune reported on Journey Home Minnesota’s financial turmoil and Huffman’s decision to sell some of its properties. The news caught the attention of county leaders, who hired an outside law firm to investigate.
The investigation determined that Huffman’s decision to sell one of the charity’s homes to his son without approval, and to use another son as a real estate agent, “violated the terms of the agreement” and “constituted an improper conflict of interest,” according to a letter Ramsey County officials sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Sale sidestepped approval
The sale of the property required approval from the Ramsey County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA), according to the county. Huffman was chairman of the HRA but did not seek approval.
The county “could not eliminate the possibility that Commissioner Huffman’s official position may have facilitated the closing notwithstanding the existing declarations affecting title to the properties,” the letter said.
Huffman, a Republican, announced he was running for governor in April 2017, touting his management of Journey Home Minnesota and his time on the County Board. He said at the time that Journey Home was growing statewide and announced plans to build homes in northern Minnesota. He bowed out of the race five months later.
In e-mails and past interviews, Huffman said he offloaded the charity’s New Brighton home to his son Zach for $126,000 on July 13 because Journey Home Minnesota was in financial distress. Huffman said no one else wanted to buy the home. The charity paid $166,100 for the home in 2013.
At the same time that Huffman was saying the charity’s finances were in peril, property records show Journey Home purchased an additional property on Victoria Street in Shoreview for $149,000 on June 22.
Reached via phone, Alex Huffman declined to comment. According to Blake Huffman’s Ramsey County website, Alex Huffman is retired from active duty with the Green Berets and works in financial services.
According to property records, Journey Home since 2017 also has bought property on Hodgson Road in North Oaks and on S. McCarrons Boulevard in Roseville.
The county will hold a special election to fill Huffman’s First District seat. The district takes in a large part of northern Ramsey County, including Arden Hills, Gem Lake, North Oaks, Shoreview, Vadnais Heights and White Bear Township, and parts of Mounds View, Spring Lake Park and White Bear Lake.