Maybe the loss of $478,000 to Chinese hackers is the kind of slap upside the head the Mobile Housing Board needs in order to finally start moving in the right direction after decades of misuse and mismanagement.
But if not, it at least serves as a stark reminder that this agency continues to bear a very close watch by city, state and federal officials. MHB has been run in such a shady fashion for so long that corruption and ineptitude appear to be part of its organizational DNA. That needs to change.
After just one year MHB is again looking for a director after Akinola Popoola was unceremoniously dumped Monday morning, with of the loss of nearly half a million bucks to hackers putting a resounding exclamation point on his time in Mobile. The board canned Popoola in response not only for MHB’s carelessness with nearly $500,000, but also another $800,000 in contract overages, as well as Popoola’s personal issues with allegedly taking off for illness but not claiming it against his sick leave and other management problems.
Getting rid of Popoola seems like a smart move, but there’s still a mess to clean up.
So far what city officials have confirmed about the hacking embarrassment is that former Chief Financial Officer Lori Shackelford mistakenly sent Chinese hackers $478,000 this spring that was supposed to go to a contractor. The “spear phishing” scam, as it’s known, supposedly breached Shackelford’s email account and hackers were able to see a payment was due and sent a message requesting the amount. Shackelford has since retired.
The board also held Popoola responsible for $800,000 in contract overages involving former Mobile Development Enterprises Director of Capital Funds Cole Appleman. According to MHB officials, problems here centered on maintenance work orders where costs were allowed to go unchecked.
Popoola’s issues with sick leave also came up Monday, as we were told he was fired for insubordination, failure to perform duties, failure to follow instructions, failure to address an infestation in one of the housing developments and not using sick time when absent from work. This last bit dovetails nicely with the recent revelation Popoola is currently involved in a lawsuit with his former employer, the Opelika Housing Authority, in which he claims to be owed more than $100,000 for unpaid sick leave. Yes, $100,000 worth of sick leave.
While there have been some new faces on the MHB board over the past few years, it still seems like the ghost of past mismanagement hovers over any attempt to become a properly functioning organization. It was just over two years ago that HUD’s Office of the Inspector General lashed MHB with the results of an investigation which pulled back the curtains on a so-called separate nonprofit entity created years earlier, mostly as a method of circumventing the county’s Personnel Board.
For many years we’ve written about Mobile Development Enterprises, a nonprofit started by MHB that was ostensibly a separate entity with its own employees, budget and revenue stream. But even a cursory look into those claims made it clear MDE workers were sitting at housing board desks, talking on housing board phones and being paid with housing board money. Former director Dwayne Vaughn, though, argued over and over that MDE was truly a separate entity, all the while withholding financial records that would prove otherwise. But HUD’s investigation said quite plainly MDE was indeed an “instrumentality” of the housing board and not a third party or affiliate.
Vaughn and cronies on the board of directors used MDE to bypass normal hiring practices and hire anyone they wanted, while still paying them with housing board money.
HUD’s investigation was particularly rough on State Rep. Adline Clarke, who served as MDE’s vice president. It pointed out that she had a conflict of interest in awarding a multimillion-dollar contract to a company owned by her half-brother. That company received more than $3 million in work from 2011 to 2015, even as its owner, Frank Seltzer, was listed as a sibling on Clarke’s Statement of Economic Interest filing with the Alabama Ethics Commission. Clarke and Seltzer were also listed with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office as incorporating Sun Belt Structures together in 1986.
Clarke’s initial run for the State House was tainted by questions of whether she would be “double dipping” as an MHB employee working in the Legislature, but she and Vaughn got clearance for her by claiming she worked for MDE and it was separate, something that turned out to be untrue. In the wake of HUD’s investigation, Vaughn also argued Clarke’s signature wasn’t on anything regarding Seltzer’s selection and she wasn’t involved in any way. HUD’s report bluntly stated, “We determined that the nonprofit participates in the procurement of the Housing Board’s contractors.”
Clarke quietly retired from the position this past April and was lauded for her service. She now faces a re-election challenge in November.
The issues around MHB are myriad and have been for many years. Under former board chairman Clarence Ball, information about what was happening within the organization was scarce, even as Vaughn oversaw an increasingly dilapidated housing stock and closed one housing development without HUD approval, costing MHB millions in federal funding.
Before he left, former Mayor Sam Jones reappointed as many of the housing board directors as he could, ensuring delay of the healing process. The rather oily Vaughn finally left early last year, just a few months after the HUD report blistered his backside.
Part of the problem, it seems to me — from the outside looking in — is that all manner of bad behavior has been allowed at MHB over the years and no one really ever pays a price for it. People like Adline Clarke are allowed to slip off and retire rather than face any real scrutiny, and lack of information from MHB facilitates that. In fact, even HUD complained it was unable to determine more about Clarke’s conflict of interest because Vaughn withheld critical information about MDE that was not readily available because of its status as a nonprofit. I doubt that was accidental.
Lost in all of this mess is whether MHB is actually doing what needs to be done to serve the people who need it. In April Lagniappe did a story in which it was revealed more than 2,700 families were waiting for traditional public housing, and another 932 families were waiting on housing choice or Section 8 vouchers. Meanwhile the average time to fill a vacant apartment was 300 days.
I have no doubt Mayor Stimpson and some members of the housing board want to see things start moving in the right direction. They need to do their best to rid MHB of any vestiges of the past and also to reel in a qualified new director. In the meantime, let’s at least check those outgoing wire transfers a little more thoroughly.