AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

It's all in the family at this Georgia housing authority

It's good to have friends in high places at the housing authority in Comer, Ga., about 20 miles east of Athens  When it needed contract labor for the public housing program, it looked no further than its executive director and her family along with a board member, the member's family and a friend, says a new audit by a federal watchdog. And where did the authority turn when it needed supplies and materials for maintenance? To the hardware store owned by the executive director's husband, who also served as the authority's maintenance mechanic, says the audit released Tuesday by the Inspector General's Office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Sure, there's a conflict of interest policy about such arrangements. But the executive director explained that the board thought there was no problem with her and her husband's roles because a prior executive director was married to the authority's former maintenance mechanic - A/K/A the "it's always been done this way" rationale. In 2012, the board also approved allowing the executive director to pay her daughter for clerical duties and cleaning at the authority.

As for the purchases at her husband's hardware store, the watchdog report notes that the authority's board back in 1997 instructed the executive director to attempt to purchase competitively, to offset any questions or problems that might arise about that. The director told the federal inspectors she didn't do that because the board told her to buy locally. Apparently the two other hardware stores less than 10 miles away weren't considered local enough.

There were consequences for the violations - that is, consequences for people needing affordable housing. As HUD got wind of the violations, it required the authority to submit all invoices for approval to one of its field offices before payments were made. The result was that the authority couldn't renovate some of its units and they remained vacant for extensive periods from 2006-2014.

Then once they were placed back online, the executive director requested that HUD pay her more than $1,600 for her services as administrator of the contract for the expenditures.

In response to the findings, the executive director said the authority had only one part-time person to address the concerns it learned of last October. "The CHA believes this is not a sufficient amount of time to provide the most accurate and comprehensive response to the details of the report," she wrote in a 10-page January letter. But, she asserts, the authority did properly manage its financial and procurement activities in accordance with requirements. You can read the rest of her response here - and the agency's 9-page response to her responses.

The upshot: The federal watchdog wants the authority to reimburse some $22,000 in ineligible costs; either support or reimburse another $33,000; hire qualified contractors to complete work so that vacant units are habitable for low-income families; and ensure that the board enforces conflict-of-interest and procurement rules. It left that to the director of the Atlanta Office of Public Housing to accomplish.

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About the Author

Lois Norder is Senior Editor for Investigations in the newsroom at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.