If a small town housing authority was found to be paying its only two employees — the director and facilities manager — who happen to be married, almost $210,000 between them, would that raise an eyebrow?
What if they also each received a $69,000 bonus this year, bringing their total take from their positions to $347,000? Would you think that sounds pretty high? And what if that housing authority also just gave them a new contract guaranteeing $4.1 million in retirement? Would you spit coffee across the room — even if you weren’t drinking coffee?
Seems like a pretty amazing amount of compensation for running a housing authority with just 99 homes, right? Frankly, it’s hard to believe something like that could actually happen — until you remember where we are.
Yes, things are getting crazy down in the bayou once again, but this may turn out to be the strangest story of them all.
The city of Bayou La Batre has had a rough go of it over the past several years between hurricanes, the downturn in the seafood industry and crooked politics. But here in the midst of all of that — topped with a heaping helping of a global pandemic — it appears the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority (BLBHA) has made Executive Director Virginia Huddleston and her husband, Darryl Wilson, remarkably comfortable and promised them the kind of retirement most of us could only dream of.
Why? I guess that’s the $4.1 million question.
Lagniappe reporter Jason Johnson dug into this story over the past few weeks, and it has turned out to be a lulu. Jason’s leaving Lagniappe, so this may be his final journalistic gift to the community — exposing Huddleston and Wilson attempting to make off with $4.1 million in retirement for jobs that pay them $120,000 and $89,000 respectively. You can read his story in this issue.
What I’m here to do is provide a little perspective on this debacle and ask a few questions better suited to an opinion column like this. The first of those would be, “What in God’s name were these people thinking?!!!”
All of it sounds like something out of a bad movie.
When Jason went to a July 21 BLBHA meeting concerning an extension of the couple’s contracts, the board passed this multimillion-dollar retirement addendum without any discussion. Huddleston refused to turn over a copy of the contract, which is a public record, to either Jason or a resident who asked for it. Later she offered some flim-flammy excuse about having to wait until she gets back from a three-month vacation. Apparently, in addition to massive bonuses and gargantuan retirements, Huddleston and Wilson also had a very generous vacation package.
But the wheels were already falling off of this Trojan Horse. Huddleston and the BLBHA board had been fighting hard to keep Mayor Terry Downey from replacing members of the board with people who might actually want to look at the financial records the mayor had been unable to get for years. Huddleston went so far as to tell new appointee Johnny Hatcher he wouldn’t be seated because of burglary convictions nearly 30 years ago that were pardoned in 2017.
As soon as Hatcher, retired sheriff’s deputy Mike Burdine and Mobile County Sheriff’s Capt. Paul Burch were seated on the board, the rest of the old members resigned. As did Huddleston and Wilson.
That’s when Lagniappe was able to finally see these contract extensions, generous bonus payments and ridiculous “lump-sum” retirement packages. Oh, and one more interesting thing — the contract addendum says the housing authority will have to pay for any legal fees that come from the contracts being contested.
That’s right, if anyone contests this sham of a contract, BLBHA has to pay for Huddleston and Wilson to fight against them.
I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years now and have never seen anything I believe is so blatantly in need of criminal investigation as this contract and the people who put it together. Hopefully District Attorney Ashley Rich and the FBI think so, too.
BLBHA was attempting to sell the entire 99-unit Safe Harbor property — the only thing it manages — for at least $4.5 million at the time all of this came to pass. It was built with $17 million in federal grant money following Hurricane Katrina before being handed over to BLBHA in 2016. Huddleston has claimed the money from the sale would be used to repair other blighted properties in the community, but it’s kind of interesting how their compensation packages would have eaten up just about everything they’d get for Safe Harbor.
Fortunately, the sale hasn’t gone through, and it doesn’t look likely it will, but Huddleston and Wilson still have a contract that says they’re going to get $4.1 million. Does that still stand?
Even if Huddleston and Wilson really do feel they’re entitled to that massive amount of compensation for running a very small housing authority — one that would still pay them even after they sold off all the houses said housing authority managed — it’s hard to believe the members of the BLBHA board would all get together and say, “Man, Ginny and Darry do one hell of a job! Let’s make sure they get millions!”
Maybe one could convene a roomful of such gullible rubes by working really hard to manage who gets appointed, but it would be quite a trick. So why would they spend the authority’s money so wildly? Why? Did they have something to gain? Someone should find out.
Even if all of this was on the up and up, it’s truly pathetic to see how willing authority board members Huddleston and Wilson were to waste money intended to run BLBHA. I can assure all of those involved, the goal of the federal money used to build Safe Harbor was never to make its director and maintenance man multimillionaires. They should all be ashamed of that contract, even the guy who drew it up.
But I’m sure they’re not. What little Huddleston and Wilson have said about this has all been about people wronging them and breaching their contracts, etc. The usual song and dance. But the contract is in black and white. There’s nothing debatable about what they’ve been paid and what they hope to be paid.
At least the people of Bayou La Batre can be thankful for one thing — this scheme came to light before the property was sold.
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