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Housing chief’s removal sought

Medford officials cite hiring of man with criminal past

Robert Covelle of the Medford Housing Authority

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Robert Covelle has come under fire for the Medford Housing Authority’s practices.

The entire Medford Housing Authority board, as well as the city’s mayor, called on housing chief Robert Covelle to resign Wednesday as new information emerged in a scandal that has engulfed the agency for weeks following reports of favoritism in hiring and contracting.

“I strongly believe that it is in the best interest of the Medford Housing Authority and the citizens of Medford that you resign,’’ Mayor Michael J. McGlynn, who appoints a majority of the board and has been one of Covelle’s leading backers, wrote in a letter to the embattled housing chief. “To do anything less could be detrimental in the relationship between [the housing authority] and the state and federal government.’’

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All four commissioners on the board, which has one vacancy, informed the Globe Wednesday night that they would vote to dismiss Covelle if he did not resign. At least one, Sylvia Jean Baumeister, said she made her decision after learning that a maintenance worker had been hired - and given a master key to authority properties - despite having a serious criminal record.

“I’m very angry and very upset about this,’’ Baumeister said. “Someone has made a huge mistake. It’s going to have to be dealt with.’’

Covelle allowed James J. O’Brien, a close friend of the authority’s operations director, to be hired as a maintenance worker in 2010 without board approval and without obtaining the usual criminal background check, records show.

A recent check by the authority indicated he was a sex offender, according to several board members.

Covelle, who is on two weeks unpaid leave from his $126,000-a-year post, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. In the past, he has said he has done nothing wrong and looks forward to returning to work.

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The Medford Housing Authority, which oversees 1,600 units of housing for low-income people, has been under fire for nearly a year over allegations that Covelle played favorites in hiring and contracting, while punishing internal critics. A federal audit recently found potential violations of rules in 21 of the 26 contracts auditors examined, including more than $4,000 paid to the girlfriend of Covelle’s son for seasonal office decorations.

This had triggered a growing chorus of calls for his resignation including one from Governor Deval Patrick late last week.

Covelle failed to respond for weeks to a request from the Globe about the criminal record of O’Brien, a $35,360 maintenance worker and friend of John Lonergan, the authority’s director of operations.

Lonergan was placed on administrative leave from his $89,000-a-year job this week while police investigate whether he improperly kept money from the sale of copper salvaged from public housing.

Baumiester said that the housing agency never conducted a Criminal Offender Records Information check on O’Brien as it normally does with new hires. As a result, she did not know about O’Brien’s past until the recent background check.

“The CORI wasn’t run the way it was supposed to run before he was hired,’’ she said. “When it was finally run [this week], he didn’t pass.’’

William Young, another board member, also called for Covelle’s resignation Wednesday.

“It’s not a good situation,’’ he said. “We’re getting hit by so many things now. But you have to have a CORI check when you have elderly people involved. That’s clear.’’

Young said authority officials told him that they took away O’Brien’s keys to agency properties on Wednesday and assigned another maintenance worker to be constantly with O’Brien while he works.

O’Brien, reached by telephone, declined to comment.

Councilor Robert Penta said he is concerned the hiring of O’Brien may be a sign of a larger problem with hiring at the authority.

“Maintenance people work with housing residents on a daily basis,’’ he said. “A CORI check should have been done. If this slipped through, the question is why? Is that just symptomatic of how the place is run?’’

Since 2008, the authority has hired 12 maintenance workers, and reported criminal background checks on eight of them to the board, board meeting minutes show. But the board was never informed of the hiring of O’Brien.

Baumeister, a board member for 20 years, said the usual procedures were bypassed in O’Brien’s case.

“Certainly, if a CORI check had been made, based on the results we now have, he would not have been hired,’’ she said. .

Michael Pacious, the housing agency’s interim executive director, said the hiring of O’Brien is under internal investigation.

“I am conducting a thorough investigation of the issues and will consider all appropriate courses of action available under the law,’’ he said.

He said he was prohibited from commenting on specific personnel matters.

Covelle, who was placed on leave on Monday, told board members in an e-mail sent Wednesday that he wants to be given a chance to prove himself and will make new plans for leading the agency during his time off.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.

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