Good morning, I’m At-Large Councilmember Robert White.
I called this press conference because last week a whistleblower shared a new complaint with my office about DCHA, which, when taken with the seven other internal investigation reports the Committee on Housing has received from the agency, paints a picture of extensive unethical and illegal behavior occurring throughout the agency. This substantiates what our residents unfortunately already know and experience: this is an agency that is not adhering to its mission.
When I took over as chair of the Committee on Housing, I promised to do things differently and bring unprecedented transparency and accountability to DCHA with the goal of making DCHA the most impactful public housing agency in the country. Today, I will outline the reports that I find most concerning as well as what I’m calling for to incite change, and I will be glad to answer any questions you have at the end.
- The first internal investigation report, which I’ll call the “DCHA Employee Voucher Scheme at Rise,” involved a DCHA employee giving vouchers to friends and family who were not eligible for placement at the Rise at Temple Courts building. The Rise building is supposed to serve as long-overdue replacement housing for people whom the District displaced over a decade ago by demolishing Temple Courts public housing. The evidence suggests that a former DCHA employee, who was supposed to oversee providing vouchers to displaced former residents, gave those vouchers to friends and family, some of whom were not even District residents. The report also notes allegations from the former employee’s coworkers that this individual had a practice of collecting and pocketing personal so-called “fees” from voucher applicants. Of the 61 vouchers for replacement units at the Rise buildings, 53 of those placements are questionable. In other words, the employee appears to have turned an important service into an opportunity for personal gain. I made this report public in February.
- The second investigation, which I’ll call the “Landlord Voucher Steering Conspiracy,” suggests that a DCHA employee received payment from a landlord before getting hired at the agency. Then, once they worked at DCHA, allegedly steered voucher recipients towards this landlord’s building. Another voucher division employee allegedly went out of their way to fill the landlord’s units with voucher holders with the expectation of payment.
Both I and the Stabilization and Reform Board received this investigation report earlier this month as a result of my push for increased transparency. I am making it available today along with the other reports I’m discussing.
- The third investigation I’ll detail today is the “Verbosity Report,” which found alleged contract steering. As several of you know from your reporting, the investigation found that DCHA awarded the Verbosity contract without seeking competitive bids, and that procurement leadership evaded board oversight by splitting this contract amount into two smaller emergency contracts. There also is an allegation that DCHA leadership terminated an employee in retaliation for his refusal to participate in what he viewed as an unlawful coverup.
Finally, last week I received an additional complaint of serious criminal behavior at the agency that I have forwarded to law enforcement for investigation, and at their request will not speak further to these allegations today.
These allegations are not simply personnel issues that can be resolved by firing the employees involved or drafting conflict of interest policies and sweeping it under the rug.
I believe these investigations are a critical part of the story of how our voucher system – from the start with who gets DCHA vouchers, to the finish line at the building where voucher holders end up living — is getting corrupted and not consistently meeting the needs of our residents. The same goes for contract awards: the process of soliciting bids and board oversight exist to prevent fraud and abuse and to get the best possible services for public housing residents – services rendered with taxpayer dollars.
With the historic investments the District made in housing these past few years, we should have seen a dramatic reduction in the public housing work order backlog and we should have seen more people pulled off the DCHA public housing waiting list. Instead, we still have over 10,000 open maintenance work orders- many of them urgent, and over 2,200 public housing units–that people need—which are uninhabitable. These facts point to deeper problems at the agency.
As we enter a leaner financial time, oversight and corrective action are more important than ever.
I have brought my concerns to Director Donald. I have shared criminal issues with the Inspector General.
I am not going to wait for more scandals or criminal activity to emerge in dribs and drabs while we use up resources triaging each one. I’m not prepared to chase my tail when the patterns of wrongdoing require us to be proactive and get to the bottom of issues making our public housing agency ineffective.
We need it all out on the table so that we can deal with it, change the culture and expectations, and move forward. There is no path forward without getting to the bottom of the breadth of these issues and instilling trust in the agency through full transparency.
I am making five calls to action today to further oversight and to root out the bad behavior and unethical activities that appear to pervade DCHA.
- I am asking the Inspector General to open a broad investigation into any theft and contract steering occurring in DCHA, engaging other law enforcement where necessary.
- I am calling on people with knowledge of wrongdoing within DCHA to report it to the Inspector General, the DCHA Office of Audit and Compliance, and to the DC Council Housing Committee. If you have information about waste, fraud, and abuse: Contact the Office of the Inspector General at 202-724-TIPS, or fill out a complaint form at www.oig.dc.gov. Contact the DCHA Office of Audit and Compliance at 1-888-535-3993Or, reach out directly to the Housing committee at email@example.com.
- If these steps result in a significant volume of issues to investigate, I will work with my Council colleagues to add staff capacity for this purpose in the Office of the Inspector General and at the Office of Audit and Compliance.
- I am calling on Director Donald to provide a plan at the Committee on Housing’s DCHA budget hearing on April 10 for how the agency will look into any other waste and fraud schemes and take immediate steps to transform the agency’s culture.
- Finally, I will introduce legislation to create more transparency and accountability at DCHA. But, I want to be clear, there is no law that can fix DCHA without a sharp culture change and the right leadership.
As the chair of the Housing Committee, and more as a Washingtonian who has watched as people struggle to keep a roof over their head and fight slum conditions, it makes me so angry that people who are paid with taxpayer money to house and protect some of the most vulnerable people in our community have acted entirely in self-interest and profited off displacement.
And I am angry that the leadership culture failed to prioritize and elevate serious issues, but instead tried to quash them quietly at the expense of taking the opportunities to investigate and fix them wholistically.
Prior to my tenure as chair of the Housing Committee, it appears serious audit reports were not going to the DCHA Board, they were not going to the Council, they were not pursued further, and where criminal activity was involved, DCHA did not transfer the information to law enforcement. These responses stymie progress allowed actions like these to continue in an agency that many in the community believe is steering vouchers and contracts.
To the District residents who deserve DCHA to be a high-functioning agency, know that I see what you are dealing with and it is not ok—from inhumane living conditions in many public housing units to waiting months or years to be housed after getting approved for a voucher. I know that these reports are not news to you and you’ve been waiting for things to get better. I am going to continue visiting our public housing, meeting with residents and voucher recipients and doing my oversight work to help you.
For the people who have been brave enough to report wrongdoing, thank you. Your courage is helping to shine a light on problems we have to fix.
To the DCHA employees in the Office of Audit and Compliance, your thorough and diligent work investigating the many allegations of wrongdoing is making a real difference.
For every DCHA employee and contractor who wants the agency to do good, please keep working to that end. I will work tirelessly with my colleagues on the Council and with the Inspector General to ensure the misconduct and self-dealing end now.