CIR: New Appliances Disappearing from Troubled California Housing Agency

blogimage.jpgRICHMOND, Calif. – Apartment 119 at the Nystrom Village public housing project should have had a little white stove in the kitchen.

The Richmond Housing Authority bought the stove new for $282 in August 2007 from General Electric Co. It was delivered by truck several days later to the maintenance warehouse, and, authority records claim, it was installed in the apartment that November. The agency said it trashed the old stove at the city dump.

But nearly five years later, the old stove was still in that corner apartment, records show, even though it should have been rusting in the landfill. The new one was nowhere to be found.

A missing stove might sound like a mundane problem, but it’s part of a disturbing trend: New stoves and refrigerators are disappearing mysteriously throughout Richmond’s troubled public housing projects.

The agency uses public money to buy appliances for hundreds of poor, elderly and disabled residents who desperately need them in these rundown and neglected buildings.

But more than a quarter of the new appliances in the housing authority’s inventory – 167 of the 598 stoves and refrigerators purchased for residents – have vanished in the last eight years, The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

The missing appliances cost more than $53,000.

The stoves and refrigerators were bought by the housing authority and delivered to its maintenance office, records show. But then they disappeared in one of two ways. For the vast majority of the missing appliances, the agency never entered them into the inventory system, and there are no records showing that the appliances were installed. For a small subset, records claim the appliances went to specific housing units, but a CIR review found that residents never received them.

“This is extremely disconcerting,” Bill Lindsay, Richmond’s city manager, said in an interview with CIR. “We need to discover if this is sloppy record keeping or a problem that’s much worse.”

Debra Holter, the agency’s asset specialist who oversees the maintenance department, made most of the appliance purchases, according to records. She wielded a significant amount of power in the maintenance department. For years, she bought all the appliances and was in charge of recording them into the inventory system. She controlled which items were installed and which residents received them. And she was in charge of verifying that her own paperwork was correct.

Holter is currently being investigated by the Richmond Police Department after CIR exposed that she helped her husband get work from the housing authority. It is a crime for a public official to give government contracts to family members.

A decade and a half ago, soon after Holter joined the housing authority, she and her husband got into trouble for running a used appliance business out of their San Pablo home. Nathaniel Powers, a former code enforcement official, found about 30 stoves and refrigerators stacked in Holter’s garage and another 100 appliances crammed in the backyard during a 1998 inspection.

“It obviously had the appearance that someone was selling appliances there,” Powers told CIR. “They had an open carport in the front of the house, and over the entrance there was a sign that said ‘Closed.’ The carport was filled with appliances.”

Contra Costa County took the Holters to court for violating zoning rules, and they were fined $175. They paid it off in 2005.

Holter did not respond to questions, saying she was under a gag order from Richmond’s city manager.

“I am not at liberty to discuss anything regarding the investigation with anyone except my union representative and my attorney,” Holter said in an email.

Holter is on paid administrative leave. She made $81,000 in 2013, with about $18,000 of that in overtime, according to city records.

The volume of missing appliances at the agency – and the fact that no one noticed – underscores the continual lack of oversight at the Richmond Housing Authority. For years, the agency was labeled one of the worst in the country by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

There was a laundry list of leadership failures: Top officials abused agency credit cards and steered contracts to family members while the elderly and disabled residents they were paid to help languished in apartments overrun with mice and mold. Maintenance workers plundered the department’s overtime funds for years.

Auditors for years have rapped the agency specifically for its inability to control its appliance inventory.

The federal government recently removed Richmond from the list of troubled housing authorities. But, as the missing appliances show, basic record-keeping and accountability problems continue to dog the agency.

How appliances disappear

The journey of one refrigerator offers a window into how appliances disappear at the Richmond Housing Authority.

Holter bought a new refrigerator from GE for $339 in August 2006, according to a housing authority purchase order. It was meant to replace an old Hotpoint fridge in Apartment 110 at the Hacienda housing project.

Delivery records show the refrigerator was shipped to the agency on Sept. 11, 2006, and delivered by Phillips Delivery to the maintenance office. Holter’s records show the new fridge was installed in Hacienda four days later and the old one was trashed at the Richmond city dump.

But it wasn’t.

When Holter purchased yet another fridge for the Hacienda apartment in May 2013, the old Hotpoint – the one that should have been lying in the Richmond dump – was still there, according to Holter’s notes on the installation.

The new fridge from 2006 was nowhere to be seen.

To this day, the housing authority cannot explain what happened.

Once a new appliance is delivered to the housing authority, it is supposed to be entered into the inventory system. Then, the housing authority fills out an installation form listing the serial number of the item and the apartment to which it’s going. This database and the forms are key to tracking appliances. But the agency never entered 145 appliances into the inventory system and could not produce the installation forms for any of these appliances when requested by CIR.

CIR identified another 22 stoves and refrigerators that were promised to specific residents who never received them. In those cases, CIR checked the serial numbers of appliances that were supposed to be installed in specific apartments in 2006, for instance, with the serial numbers of what the agency said was there several years later. These two serial numbers should match – but they didn’t. The documents revealed appliances that were supposed to have been replaced still were there years later.

Tim Jones, the agency’s executive director, seemed unfazed by the volume of missing appliances. He dismissed the problem as potentially sloppy paperwork.

Residents like 68-year-old Caroline Calhoun are in dire need of new appliances. She uses a rickety, old Kenmore stove to bake pies for her grandkids. It’s prone to malfunction, constantly overheating and turning off.

Calhoun says she has received only one new stove in the 31 years she has lived in her Nystrom Village apartment.

“These people are so dirty. I’m angry,” Calhoun said. “I never in my life thought I’d live like this. It’s a nightmare.”

The housing authority should have caught the missing appliances years ago.

Since 2010, audit after audit has blasted the agency for failing to monitor its inventory. Time and again, Holter could not produce records for auditors that accounted for inventory and equipment. Federal rules require the housing authority to do annual checks to ensure that all items, including appliances, are properly tracked.

Tony Taplin, the housing authority’s finance manager, is responsible for monitoring the inventory. In response to the audits, the city assigned Taplin to revamp the troubled inventory system. Four years later, he still hasn’t done it.

“Debra never turned those records in,” he said in an interview with CIR. “Actually, we’re in trouble for that. We never followed up.”  

Federal authorities concluded in 2012 that Taplin was part of an agencywide breakdown in oversight at the housing authority. Audits said Taplin and other managers consistently failed to discipline employees who broke the rules.

Taplin himself used public money for personal use, expensing gas and personal meals to the agency credit card, records show. Federal inspectors in 2012 called his financial knowledge inadequate, saying he routinely failed to provide basic paperwork showing how money was spent.

Jones did not say why Taplin hadn’t followed up on the inventory. But he said the agency is in the process of hiring a consultant to survey the inventory system.

Reposted from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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