When HUD’s Inspector General slammed the Mobile Housing Board and its nonprofit subsidiary earlier this week in a 100-page audit report, it was the shoe that’s been waiting to drop for years.
Any Mobilian with a reasonably functioning set of eyes could look at MHB residential facilities like Roger Williams, Josephine Allen and Birdville and recognize the Housing Board has been run more poorly than the Cleveland Browns over the past decade or more. The horrid condition of many of those residential centers actually played a big role in former Mobile Mayor Sam Jones’ getting booted from office three years ago. Many of his longtime voters just couldn’t believe the mayor would drive through such squalor every day for eight years and not do something about it.
The IG’s report this week should only reaffirm such feelings about how MHB has been run under the Jones-appointed or reappointed board. I say “has” because until recently those ghosts from administrations past still held sway at MHB. Mayor Sandy Stimpson has finally been able to replace a majority of the board after Donald Langham abruptly jumped ship in May after 23 years on the board, claiming he had issues with the privatization of a voucher program. My guess is he knew this report was coming and wanted to get out of the way. In the wake of the report, Stimpson is vowing a long-needed cleanup of MHB.
While the IG’s report is almost 70 pages long and will require some serious study to examine all criticism of MHB, the issues most easily gleaned deal with a plummeting housing stock that has left thousands and thousands of people waiting for a place to live, questions about the way in which millions of dollars were spent and, finally, the recognition that MHB’s nonprofit division, Mobile Development Enterprises, was not ever a separate entity. This last bit is an issue Lagniappe explored in some detail three years ago as State Rep. Adline Clarke sought to win a special election to replace the late Yvonne Kennedy in District 97.
During that race a complaint was filed alleging that Clarke’s election would violate The Hatch Act, a 1939 law aimed at keeping civil servants from engaging in partisan politics, since she serves as a vice president for MDE.
A ruling from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel greenlighted her run, though, and Clarke ended up defeating Karlos Finley for the position, with much of the margin of victory coming from her almost ridiculously overwhelming percentage of all absentee votes. In the lead-up to the election, I’d looked into MDE, which Housing Board Executive Director Dwayne Vaughn had described as an entity separate from Mobile Housing Board. But everywhere I looked it seemed obvious MDE was little more than a shell game devised to allow MHB to circumvent the county’s Personnel Board, which in turn made it easy to hire whomever they wished at whatever salary without it being public. Incidentally, at the time the Alabama Ethics Commission said it saw no differentiation between the two entities, but it doesn’t rule on Hatch Act issues.
MDE has always worked out of Housing Board offices, used Housing Board equipment and, as far as I could tell, paid employees with Housing Board money. Because it was a nonprofit organization, getting complete financial records was nearly impossible. The ones I did see showed an organization $550,000 in the hole, which, using the math I picked up in Gautier Elementary, meant there was no possible way MDE was not using Housing Board money to pay its “employees.”
The IG report essentially confirms what we reported about three years ago has been the case. I say “essentially” because in the report HUD says MHB denied investigators the ability to look through MDE’s financial records. As usual it sounds like they aren’t very interested in letting anyone have a peek at what’s going on financially. MDE actually had its tax-exempt status revoked in 2010 because of a failure to file paperwork, but got it back.
But what the report divulged looks pretty bad. Most shocking is that Clarke’s half-brother’s company, Superior Masonry, received more than $3.6 million from MHB for capital improvement construction services between 2011 and 2015. And even though she and Vaughn have touted the separate nature of the two entities, you’ll never guess who signed part of the deal that let her half-brother’s company make that money. According to the GI report, Clarke “signed the Mobile Development Enterprises contract with the Housing Board that agrees to all construction management activities, including those related to vacancy reduction, which were subsequently carried out by Superior Masonry.”
At this point HUD has told MHB to put up or shut up in terms of proving there was no conflict of interest in paying Clarke’s half-brother. They’re telling MHB to prove it or pay back $1.2 million.
This game has been going on for a while, though. In 2013 when I called Langham, who served as vice chairman for both MHB and MDE, to ask him about the Housing Board’s nonprofit, he seemed dumbfounded. He didn’t even recognize the entity’s name at first, and once I explained, he told me he didn’t think anyone actually worked for MDE and he wasn’t sure how they were paid.
Likewise, Clarke also claimed she didn’t know whether she was paid by the Housing Board or MDE, explaining that her salary was paid via direct deposit, so she couldn’t be sure which account it came from. Kind of hard to believe from someone who is not only a VP, but was involved in having to prove the Hatch Act didn’t apply to her situation.
The Housing Board has long been poorly managed, and people have suffered because of that. Thousands have waited for affordable housing while people like Vaughn, Langham and former board chairman Clarence Ball have allowed MHB to go down the toilet and spent their efforts on this shady nonprofit.
Hopefully the HUD report gives Mayor Stimpson the stick necessary to clean up the disgraceful mess at MHB. A full accounting of what has been happening at Mobile’s Housing Board is long overdue.