CAIRO – At the headquarters of the Alexander County Housing Authority, where a public housing scandal has brought federal authorities to town and prompted a criminal investigation, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Illinois lawmakers should rewrite the statute that governs the appointing process for local housing authority board members.
While the process differs across the state and is more diverse in some larger cities, in the more rural parts of the state and Southern Illinois, including Alexander County, the appointing power for the board members rests with their respective county’s board chairperson.
That can centralize too much power, Durbin said, speaking to residents on Monday evening at a gathering at the ACHA board room.
“When you look at Alexander County and Cairo, it really raises a question about whether we can avoid some of the terrible things that happened in the past just by changing the way these housing authorities are established,” Durbin said. “You just don’t want a power grab where one group controls it."
Prior to taking over the housing authority in Alexander County, HUD officials in Chicago had attempted to work with County Board Chairman Chalen Tatum to convince him to remove some board members. Tatum stalled for months, saying he was waiting for the board members identified as problematic by HUD to resign on their own. At the point HUD took over on Feb. 22, those board members in question had not been removed, though HUD's takeover cleared all sitting members.
Tatum’s father, Bill Tatum, worked for the housing authority and was among several employees who received questionable retirement deals. An agreement signed by Tatum and then-Executive Director James Wilson, called for Tatum to receive a $15,000 cash buyout with all benefits paid upon his retirement in late 2012 or early 2013. The exact date of Tatum’s retirement under the agreement is difficult to discern as the original date is scratched out in ink pen, with a corrected date hand written on the typed memo. It also called for Tatum to receive continued health insurance benefits for two years, until he reached age 65, or a cash equivalent equal to insurance costs, as well as employment for one day a week for two years.
Bill Tatum’s was one of several golden-parachute retirement agreements Wilson, the executive director from 1989 to early 2013, approved on his way out the door, according to documents the newspaper obtained. Wilson told the newspaper in August the agreements were designed to save the housing authority money as federal cuts were handed down, as well as take care of loyal employees.
But HUD stated in a 2014 review that these and various other payouts to employees – totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars – amounted to an inappropriate allocation of federal dollars that were earmarked for improving residents’ living conditions and instead spent on employees. This is alleged to have happened while residents were forced to live in substandard housing that became hotbeds for infestation and crime.
Alleged nepotism, favoritism and discrimination by white managers of African-American employees also have been cited as concerns by HUD.
Durbin, without making any statements about the local politics that were at play as the housing authority fell into disrepair, said that one possible change Illinois lawmakers should consider is that where there are local housing authorities that serve a county-wide area, the appointing power for board members is shared with the cities located within the county’s boundaries.
In Alexander County, that could mean sharing appointing authority between the county board chairperson and mayor of Cairo, he said.
“So the question is, how do you make sure that in the future you have political accountability and transparency, not a political power grab?” Durbin said.
But while Durbin, a powerful Democratic federal lawmaker, called for changes to state law, he stopped short of calling for any changes to federal law, or for a need for more oversight of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the primary funding source of local housing authorities.
Durbin’s counterpart, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, has requested in detailed letters to the agency answers as to why HUD continued to allocate millions of dollars to the housing authority – about $20 million over an seven-year period – while it was aware of issues of mismanagement and misuse of funds dating back to at least 2010, according to HUD review documents provided to Kirk’s office that were shared with the newspaper.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Durbin did say it appeared that circumstances that led to the steady decline of the Alexander County Housing Authority were amiss at “a lot of different levels." But he didn't directly answer a question as to whether he believed HUD was derelict in its oversight duties. Durbin instead noted that he joined U.S. Rep. Mike Bost months ago in co-writing a letter to HUD Secretary Julian Castro asking for a complete and thorough investigation into allegations of mismanagement as spelled out in The Southern Illinoisan’s “Chaos in Cairo” series that began in late August.
The letter asked for a review of whether federal funds were spent appropriately, but did not specifically speak to what HUD knew about mismanagement issues in Cairo, and when HUD knew about those issues. Still, Durbin assured he is “on record” with those concerns, and continuing to seek answers.
“Taxpayers lost money in the process, and it appears the poor people here suffered as a result of it,” he said. “That would be something we need to follow through on and we will follow through on.”
At the start of the meeting, Durbin told the residents that some “terrible things have happened here, things that should have never happened.”
“And what we’re doing is looking forward in terms of where we’re going next and what we’re going to do next,” Durbin said, praising the HUD Recovery Team assigned to clean up the mess in Cairo past local administrators left behind. He called the health and safety issues expressed by residents, including crime, infestation, and chipping paint that could be lead based, very serious concerns that are being discussed from Cairo to Washington, D.C.