MEDFORD - Medford Housing Authority chief Robert Covelle hired his close friend and bocce teammate to a $53,000-a-year job, demoting a staff member to create the opening, his employees say. He hired his son’s girlfriend in a no-bid contract to do more than $4,000 worth of seasonal decorations in the office, according to federal investigators. He created a new $85,000-a-year job that went to a family friend of Mayor Michael J. McGlynn of Medford.
And when two employees complained separately in writing to the Medford Housing Authority board about Covelle’s alleged attempts to get jobs and subsidized housing for insiders, each was suspended from work, for allegedly being rude or for showing anger, according to records and interviews.
The housing authority in this blue-collar city of 55,000 has been under siege since last June when state officials first visited the Riverside Avenue headquarters to investigate allegations of widespread favoritism in hiring and contracting under Covelle, the brother-in-law of the late Middlesex County sheriff, James DiPaola.
It is illegal for public officials to use their official position to help friends or family get jobs or contracts.
In recent months, state troopers have raided authority offices, carrying out boxes of documents, while authority officials have been called to testify before a state grand jury that is considering criminal charges. Last week, some city councilors called for Covelle’s resignation after a federal audit showed almost $1.4 million in questionable spending in a 15-month period, including the $4,355 paid to decorator Erica DeCrescenzo, now married to Covelle’s son.
Covelle insists that he has done nothing wrong, arguing that many of the questionable spending practices cited in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development audit started before he arrived in June 2009. At a contentious housing board meeting last week, Covelle boasted that the authority is in good financial condition. Coming to his defense was the friend that he hired as a $53,000 housing manager, who portrayed Covelle as a victim of bitter employees.
“Bob is unfortunately taking the rap here for things that happened here for the umpteenth year,’’ said Santo “Sam’’ Pirri, who plays bocce with Covelle at the Malden Italian-American Club. He told the audience of more than 50 people that Covelle has been targeted by a “disgruntled group of people who sent a letter in to HUD.’’
But others say Covelle has clamped down on dissent during the federal and state investigations, creating a climate of fear for employees. Authority managers suspended housing coordinator Bonnie Curran for rudeness in March, just weeks after she wrote to the board about Covelle’s alleged favoritism, according to authority records. In the letter, Curran said she was already known internally as “a rat.’’
Authority officials also suspended assistant director Barbara Fleming for five days last December after she complained to the board that the agency continued to hire a politically connected contractor after she had asked that the contractor be banned for poor-quality work, records show. Officials cited Fleming for losing her temper in the office.
“For the employees, it’s awful,’’ said one employee who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “Unless you’re part of the clique, you’re treated like you don’t belong. We’re constantly worrying that one of his friends will want to take your job.’’
The controversy in Medford comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of public housing following disclosure that the housing director in nearby Chelsea, Michael E. McLaughlin, had concealed his $360,000-a-year salary, which he collected despite rarely working a full day at his office. The authority’s entire board of directors resigned under pressure from Governor Deval Patrick, and a state receiver took over day-to-day operations until a new board could be appointed.
The state’s 242 housing authorities collectively receive billions of dollars from state and federal government, but they are run by local boards that often receive only superficial outside review. For instance, the Chelsea and Medford housing authorities were both rated as “high performers’’ by federal housing authorities just before allegations of wrongdoing surfaced.
In Medford, Covelle’s $120,000 salary is not a major issue, but some employees believed that he benefited from favoritism even before he left his former position as finance director for the Somerville Housing Authority.
Covelle, 59, is married to Patricia Covelle, sister and campaign treasurer for DiPaola, who committed suicide in 2010 amid a campaign finance investigation in which she eventually was fined $4,000. DiPaola was close friends with Medford’s longtime mayor - DiPaola’s widow is McGlynn’s secretary - giving Covelle two powerful backers whom Covelle referred to as “my consultants’’ in an e-mail to his board.
McGlynn, who appoints four of the five members of the housing board, said he did not speak up on Covelle’s behalf until Covelle was one of two finalists. But at least one other finalist for the job withdrew after Covelle’s connections became apparent.
“I reassessed my job search and decided not to pursue it,’’ said John Coddington, former executive director of the Everett Housing Authority.
Since Covelle took office, he has surrounded himself with familiar faces, hiring his friend Pirri within a few months and then promoting him to the post of subsidized housing manager when Pirri’s predecessor agreed to take a demotion.
Pirri said in an interview that he was hired on merit alone and that Covelle did not even alert him to the job’s opening. “I applied like anyone else, interviewed, and got the job,’’ he said.
He said his friendship and bocce-playing with Covelle played no role in his hiring. “That’s after hours, on my own time,’’ he said. “What does that have to do with anything?’’
Covelle hired the lawyer from his past job in Somerville, paying Jeff Driscoll a higher hourly rate than he received at two other authorities where he provides legal services, according to billing records.
Driscoll declined to comment.
The authority also created a new $85,000 post to oversee building maintenance and opened it to all comers. In the end, however, the job went to one of the authority board members who voted to hire Covelle, a candidate whose family is also friendly withMcGlynn. John Lonergan’s family owns an insurance agency that, for many years, was next door to the florist shop operated by McGlynn’s family, and both families were active in local politics.
Lonergan, a former iron worker, said in a brief interview that he was qualified for the management position, which required extensive experience supervising a staff of at least 20 people, according to the job description. Lonergan said that, in 20 years as a union worker, he sometimes supervised work crews, though he was not specific.
Records show that Lonergan barely met the federal requirement that board members wait a year before going to work for the authority. He resigned from the Medford board exactly 366 days before he started as operations manager.
Employees say the pattern of hiring and promoting insiders has continued throughout Covelle’s tenure, bringing in the Woburn Housing Authority director’s daughter and a distant relative of Covelle’s wife, among others.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development launched an investigation last June when officials received an anonymous letter detailing allegations of favoritism in hiring, as well as the spending of millions of dollars on building maintenance, construction, and other services, according to state officials.
On June 16, 2011, state investigators showed up unannounced at authority headquarters. Several hours into the visit, they say they found finance director Michael Pacious, attempting to shred documents, apparently unaware that investigators had already unplugged the machines.
Pacious declined comment.
State officials turned their evidence over to Attorney General Martha Coakley, who convened a grand jury to determine whether to bring criminal charges, according to a state official who asked not to be named because grand jury proceedings are confidential. On Aug. 29, troopers and other officials from Coakley’s office descended on authority headquarters, leaving with boxes of documents.
State housing officials also sent their findings to HUD, which launched civil and criminal investigations simultaneously, according to the state official who asked not to be identified.
Robert Penta, a Medford city councilor alarmed at reports of a police raid at the housing authority, asked Covelle to answer questions, but he said Covelle declined on the grounds that the City Council does not oversee the authority.
“The authority is not communicating with this office,’’ Penta said in an interview.
However, Covelle has insisted through his attorney that he did nothing wrong.
“He denies any wrongdoing and welcomes any investigation,’’ attorney Thomas Drechsler said in an interview. “He is confident that any investigation will show no wrongdoing . . . He has impeccable experience, working his way up the ranks of the Somerville Housing Authority.’’
After the attorney general’s raid, authority employees say Covelle and his allies began taking disciplinary action against people perceived as disloyal.
Fleming was suspended for five days in December after she asked board members to ban Capital Construction, a company owned by a friend of Lonergan, from doing additional work for the authority because of poor quality. Fleming told the board that Capital got up to $221,000 in work after she objected.
The federal audit completed in February found its own concerns with Capital Construction, concluding that the company had been hired without any public bidding and that the authority was paying the company without a contract to specify what was expected of them, according to the audit.
The audit found potential violations of federal contracting procedures in 21 out of the 26 contractors they reviewed, totalling almost $1.4 million in spending that HUD officials said Medford could have to repay the federal government if it cannot justify the spending. Ten contractors, including Covelle’s son’s girlfriend, were hired without any competition, while one company, Prism Builders Inc., had been denied state certification because of failing grades on three public housing projects.
Covelle promised at last week’s board meeting to make numerous changes at the housing authority, and he said the agency is in good shape, with $6 million in the bank and housing units that are in excellent condition.
“Nothing is ever perfect, and we’re trying to correct everything now,’’ said board member Eugene McGillicuddy.
But even Covelle’s ally McGlynn said the federal audit had raised “significant and severe’’ concerns.
“To say these issues need to be addressed is an understatement,’’ the mayor said.