James Wilson

James Wilson, former director of the Alexander County Housing Authority.

The fact that fraud complaints were filed this week by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development against James Wilson of Cairo and Martha Franklin of Thebes indicate the federal government is finally seeking some degree of accountability regarding Cairo’s public housing mess.

Unfortunately, accountability does not equate justice. And, given the craven nature of this sordid tale, justice will never truly be served.

Wilson and Franklin are each to face 125 counts of fraud and separate charges individually for their roles in allowing the Elmwood and McBride housing projects in Cairo to descend into unlivable conditions. Earlier this year, about 400 residents of the two complexes were told they must seek housing elsewhere.

The financial penalties faced by Wilson and Franklin are estimated at about $900,000. The fraud counts charge the pair spent lavishly on travel and entertainment while working for the Alexander County Housing Authority.

Wilson was the executive director from 1989 to 2013. Franklin was finance director from 2004 to 2013 and executive director from 2013 to 2015.

Certainly $900,000 is not an insignificant amount. However, it wouldn’t matter if the government were seeking $900 million, justice simply cannot be served to the residents who were subjected to squalid living conditions during the tenures of Wilson and Franklin.

How do you repay a child for growing up in an apartment infested with mice and cockroaches?

How do you restore dignity to a parent who is forced to heat his or her home with the oven?

No fine, no amount of jail time, could ever begin to repay that debt.

Having no experience as the executive director of a housing authority, we cannot begin to understand the intricacies of the job. On the other hand, the baseline expectations are self-evident — provide a clean, safe living environment for your clients.

As evidenced by The Southern Illinoisan’s reporting since 2015, they failed miserably in this most basic task. The fact that they diverted funds that could have benefited the McBride and Elmwood residents makes this situation more egregious.

“Every dollar misspent on personal travel and other expenses is a dollar that could support the individuals and families we serve,” said Dane Narode, assistant general counsel of HUD’s office of program enforcement. “Taxpayers deserve to know that the public programs they support are helping meet the needs of the many, not the few.”

That is a succinct summation of the legal issues faced by Wilson and Franklin. Yes, as taxpayers each and every one of us should be outraged at this kind of fraud. Again, thinking of the residents who suffered because of mismanagement, legal proceedings, no matter the outcome, will be a matter of entirely too little, way too late.

Finally, HUD’s role in rooting out mismanagement cannot stop here.

Wilson and Franklin did not operate in a vacuum. Their expense vouchers had to be approved by someone up the bureaucratic ladder.

HUD inspectors regularly gave the ramshackle housing units passing grades. The stench of corruption and mismanagement isn’t limited to a pair of local figures. It is unthinkable that no one else in the agency won’t face legal repercussions.

Equally troubling is Wilson’s response to the allegations being leveled against him.

When asked to comment, he left a voicemail at the newspaper stating, “My only comment is I wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”

He appears to be either flippant about the situation, or unaware of the severity of the issue.

Sadly, the people he formerly served that are now being forced to leave their homes will take little solace in his “Merry Christmas.”

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