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Cairo Housing Crisis

HUD files fraud complaint against ex-ACHA officials; in response, former executive director wishes 'everybody a Merry Christmas'

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WASHINGTON — Seven months after federal housing officials told 400 people they have to move from their dilapidated public housing complexes in Cairo, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a fraud complaint Tuesday against two former managers of the Alexander County Housing Authority seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil penalties.

The 45-page civil complaint brought by HUD’s Office of Hearings and Appeals against former executive directors James Wilson, of Cairo, and Martha Franklin, of Thebes, alleges the two used federal public housing dollars for travel and gifts and submitted false documentation to HUD.

Against both Wilson and Franklin, HUD seeks 125 civil penalties plus assessments totaling $908,007.38. Additionally, HUD seeks 73 civil penalties and assessments totaling $293,463.70 against Franklin individually, and two civil penalties totaling $15,000 against Wilson individually for, the government alleges, falsifying that the ACHA was in compliance with civil rights laws and HUD’s lead safety requirements.  

Wilson’s response to the matter was brief. “My only comment is, ‘I wish everybody a Merry Christmas,’” he said in a voicemail message, returning The Southern’s call seeking comment on the allegations and fines. He did not answer a subsequent phone call. The Southern has never been successful in contacting Franklin, and her number is not listed.

Jereon Brown, HUD’s general deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, said that it is up to a judge to determine whether the joint penalties and assessments totaling close to $900,000 are split between the two in some manner, or if the total amount is paid by each, should HUD be successful in its case against them.

Wilson and Franklin have 30 days to respond to the complaint, Brown said. Unless the case is settled by agreement of the parties beforehand, the two have the option of appearing before an administrative law judge in Washington or asking for a trial. If a trial is requested on the matter, the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to file the civil complaint in federal court on HUD’s behalf, according to Brown.

Wilson served as executive director of the ACHA from 1989 to April 1, 2013. Franklin served as finance director from 2004 through April 2013, and as executive director from April 2013 to March 2015.

Charges of segregation

Among the allegations made against them in the complaint is that Wilson and Franklin, who are both white, “knowingly continued a practice of segregation and exposed black residents to unfavorable conditions.” The Elmwood and McBride properties HUD has slated for demolition because they are unsafe have almost exclusively housed black families for years, although Alexander County was about 61 percent white during their tenure, according to the complaint. 

The complaint alleges that Wilson and Franklin perpetuated segregation despite an agreement in 1974 with the federal government for the ACHA to integrate. They also were accused of discriminatory employment practices, including paying black workers less than white workers despite giving black workers more challenging assignments.

The complaint also alleges that Wilson failed to comply with HUD’s lead safety requirements by failing to conduct risk assessments, failing to disclose to tenants all known lead-based paint and/or lead-based paint hazards at the properties, among other related failures. The state Department of Children and Family Services lists Cairo as a high-risk region for potential lead poisoning of children. In the past decade, at least five children have tested with dangerously high blood lead levels who live at the complexes, according to records The Southern has obtained from Southern Seven Health Department.

Further, the complaint alleges that Wilson inappropriately entered into a consulting contract after his retirement in 2013 and that Franklin inappropriately approved his payments in violation of the local agency’s Annual Contributions Contract with HUD. The complaint alleges that Wilson also violated the contract when accepting a legal settlement agreement offered by the ACHA board upon HUD directing the agency to terminate Wilson’s consulting contract, payments for which Franklin also approved.

In articles published in August and September of 2015 titled “Chaos in Cairo” and “Living Large on the Public Dime,” The Southern outlined many of the same concerns about questionable spending on contracts, fine dining, excessive travel, alcohol and gifts that are cited in the federal complaint.

The articles were based on HUD monitoring reports from 2013 and 2014 noting misspending dating back several years, as well as a review of hundreds of receipts, credit card statements and contracts obtained from the ACHA in a public records request.

In the latter 2015 article, The Southern noted that Wilson attended at least eight training conferences in destination cities between February 2012 and March 2013, the year before his retirement. As well, The Southern outlined a highly questionable travel policy of the ACHA.

The travel policy provided for employees and board members to receive “vouchers” based on the distance to a particular training destination, as if they were being reimbursed for mileage, even if they did not drive, and credit card statements showed that airline tickets appeared to be purchased separately, over the amount of the voucher. The highly unusual government travel policy based the voucher amount on mileage and then deducted 30 percent from the total if airline tickets were separately purchased.

As well, the voucher covered meals and lodging even though credit card receipts showed those items also were often separately charged to the ACHA. Some of those meals included steak, seafood and sorbet at high-end restaurants, as well as alcohol purchases. In the fall of 2015, HUD spokeswoman Gina Rodriguez told The Southern that the agency was not aware of the travel policies of the ACHA because “they have just come to our attention,” but added that a review is often conducted when concerns are brought to the agency’s attention.

The next month, agents from HUD’s Office of Inspector General, wielding a subpoena, paid a surprise visit to the ACHA’s office in Cairo and spent hours carting off boxes of records and electronics. Four months later, HUD seized control of the ACHA, removing local management and assuming day-to-day control of its operations in administrative receivership.

The federal complaint filed Tuesday alleges Wilson and Franklin “knowingly overstated their travel expenses and double charged the ACHA.” According to HUD's complaint, Franklin and/or Wilson took a combined 10 trips between February 2012 and May 2014, costing a combined $41,755.

Excessive travel and spending

The complaint highlights the same case example of what it called “excessive travel” as The Southern cited in an article two years ago of a trip Wilson and Franklin took to Las Vegas in December 2012 for a “TSA: Preventative Maintenance Training" conference. 

According to the federal complaint, Wilson and Franklin, among other things: a) charged the ACHA both for the airfare and mileage to travel to and from Las Vegas; b) charged the ACHA for six days of lodging and eight days of meals, even though the training only lasted two days; c) used the ACHA credit card to pay for their hotel rooms at the Golden Nugget, despite having already received ACHA funds to pay for lodging; and d) used the ACHA credit card to pay for multiple meals and expenses, including alcoholic beverages, even though the ACHA had already paid Wilson and Franklin a meal per diem.

According to the agency’s internal control policies, the expenses were approved by both the then-finance director, Franklin, and then-executive director Wilson.  

Though not cited in as much detail in the federal complaint, The Southern included in its article an example of a bill from that same 2012 trip of mostly alcoholic beverages that appeared to have been paid for by the ACHA’s credit card. The $100 tab at La Salsa Cantina in Las Vegas was mostly for drinks including a frozen margarita ($8.95); a frozen strawberry margarita ($9.50); and two cocktails called JamaicaMe Crazy ($19.50).  

According to the Training Services Association website, the course is designed to help public and private managers of housing stock “substantially reduce their long-term maintenance costs by strengthening their preventative maintenance procedures.” The 1940s-era Cairo public housing complexes from which families are being relocated are crumbling under the weight of age, but also appear to have been neglected for years.

By spring 2015, the housing authority was so financially troubled that it was on the verge of being unable to pay its light bill or meet payroll. Earlier this year, HUD Secretary Ben Carson described the ACHA as “nearly bankrupt.”

On April 10, when federal housing officials told families that it was no longer safe for them to live at Elmwood and McBride and that many families would have to relocate to communities outside of Cairo, residents vigorously asked why no one had been held accountable for the events that led to that emotional night. Brown has said on several occasions that HUD understands the cries for justice. 

“Every dollar misspent on personal travel and other expenses is a dollar that could support the individuals and the families we serve,” Dane Narode, associate general counsel of HUD’s Office of Program Enforcement, said in a statement issued with HUD’s news release on Tuesday. “Taxpayers deserve to know that the public programs they support are helping to meet the needs of the many, not the few.”

In July, HUD filed a separate administrative action against Wilson and Franklin, and former board member and union negotiator John Price, seeking to preclude them from doing business with the federal government in the future. HUD has proposed the indefinite debarment of Wilson and Franklin, and that action is still pending, according to Brown. The government was successful in its efforts to preclude Price from participating in any activities involving federal funds for three years, Brown said.

Brown said that fines also could be assessed as part of the debarment process, but he had no new details on Tuesday. According to congressional leaders, the HUD Office of Inspector General, the agency’s enforcement arm, is also conducting two reviews related to the housing crisis in Cairo — an investigation pertaining to alleged mismanagement by the ACHA, and an assessment of HUD’s oversight role in Cairo. To date, OIG, which would forward any criminal allegations to the Department of Justice for consideration, if warranted, has not released any reports related to either review.

Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman said he sees this action against Wilson and Franklin as a positive development.

“The people who were at the root of the cause of this need to be punished,” he said, adding that he will not be satisfied until responsible parties at HUD, who he believes should have intervened much sooner, also are held responsible. “HUD is a part of this too, so are they going to sue themselves?”

Contract inspectors hired by HUD gave the Elmwood and McBride complexes passing marks for years, and despite documented management problems at the ACHA dating back to at least 2010, HUD dragged its feet to intervene in a substantive way while continuing to send millions of dollars in federal funds to the agency. According to HUD's complaint against Franklin and Wilson, the agency provided the ACHA in excess of $9 million bewteen 2012 and 2015. 

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, whose district includes Cairo, said in a statement that “the people of Cairo have been waiting for a long time, but I’m glad some measure of justice has finally been delivered to them.”

“While accountability will never completely right the wrongs of the past, it will hopefully serve as a deterrent for this type of fraud in the future,” Bost said.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., issued a joint statement saying that the “hardworking people of Cairo deserve accountability from those who manufactured this housing crisis, and we’re glad to see Secretary Carson responding to our repeated requests and finally taking concrete steps to hold Mr. Wilson and Ms. Franklin responsible for their fraudulent management of ACHA.”

The saga of mismanagement in Cairo stretched on for years under the previous administration, with HUD finally placing the AHCA in administrative receivership in early 2016. Under Carson's leadership, the agency swiftly took action upon his confirmation in March to begin the difficult process of relocating residents, many of whom expressed at the time of the announcement that they did not want to leave Cairo. Since that time, 70 families have found new homes, and 115 continue to look.

Some families have been able to stay in Cairo, and HUD officials say they are working to make other opportunities available at other ACHA complexes for those who do not want to leave. About 20 families have moved to Carbondale, and others have relocated to Marion, Paducah, Cape Girardeau and elsewhere. 

“We hope HUD can recover these fines and quickly reinvest the funds in Cairo to ensure the residents of Elmwood and McBride can remain in the community they know and love,” Durbin and Duckworth said, in their statement. Brown said that any recovered money will be returned, per policy, to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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