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Metro

Barely supervised, some housing chiefs stray badly

Globe review finds a system vulnerable to incompetence, indolence, and worse

Winchester Housing director Joseph Lally said he works more than 69 hours a week at two jobs.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Winchester Housing director Joseph Lally said he works more than 69 hours a week at two jobs.

Easton’s former housing director spent hours at work sending flirtatious e-mails to various men, then resigned before an audit last June showed she had badly neglected the apartment buildings she was supposed to manage. By then, Susan Horner had a new job: teaching other housing officials how to improve their performance.

The housing director in Winchester has a second full-time job as a courthouse lawyer, requiring him to be away from the housing authority for 31.5 hours a week the last three years. When the law office learned about Joseph M. Lally’s second job, it froze his pay and launched an audit of his work. But Winchester officials did nothing, saying they’re satisfied Lally gets his town work done on nights and weekends.

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Peabody’s former housing director resigned after TV cameras caught him spending much of the work week in local sports bars and social clubs in 2009. Nonetheless, the housing authority board let Frank Splaine stay on the payroll for five extra months, helping to boost his pension, and gave him a $27,000 severance check to boot.

Housing directors face remarkably little accountability for their work managing housing for more than 300,000 elderly and low-income people in Massachusetts, a Boston Globe investigation has found. Though the federal and state governments pump $1.2 billion a year into local housing budgets, oversight comes from local boards mainly chosen by mayors or in little-noticed elections. All too often, no one is sharply focused on how money — or time — is spent.

In the worst cases, tenants pay the price for inattentive or indifferent management, enduring leaky roofs, bad heating, rodent infestation, and other hardships.

“Housing authorities are off the books, as far as state and local scrutiny is concerned,” said Barbara Sard, a former senior policy adviser to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development now with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington.

The scandal in Chelsea, where former housing director Michael E. McLaughlin is suspected of diverting millions from renovation funds to pay for his lavish salary and other perks, may be the most serious breach of trust in public housing since 2004, when Springfield housing director Raymond Asselin and four members of his family went to prison for running a $1 million system of bribes and kickbacks.

The scandals in both cities speak to the vulnerability of housing authorities to fraud and abuse, sometimes taking advantage of regulators who seem to be looking the other way. Until the Globe revealed McLaughlin’s $360,000 salary in November 2011, he consistently earned “high performer” awards from HUD, which entitled him to reduced oversight of his work. The agency showered similar accolades on the Medford Housing Authority under director Robert Covelle, who resigned last spring amid charges that he illegally funneled work to friends and family.

Likewise, Horner, the former Easton housing director, had been named Massachusetts “member of the year” by the state’s public housing officials in 2009, the year before she resigned after her racy work-time e-mails were revealed. HUD officials had raised concerns about Horner’s poor leadership as early as 2005, but did little more than ask her to submit improvement plans — something she apparently never did.

An Easton housing board member, Thomas Downey, said the state was no help either. Downey said he tried for years to get the state Department of Housing and Community Development to pay attention to the festering problems, including Horner’s frequent absences and the deteriorating condition of the apartments. But he couldn’t even persuade state officials to appoint a state representative to the five-member Easton board as the law requires, thus denying the board the potential tie-breaking vote on firing Horner. The position remained vacant for seven years.

“They knew” what a bad job Horner was doing, said Downey, who was elected to the Easton board in 2007. “It went on for a long time before I began making noise . . . The state knew and allowed it to go on.”

Contacted at her home, Horner declined to comment.

But state officials say they have limited influence over housing directors, who owe more allegiance to their local boards and political sponsors than to state bureaucrats and often regard themselves as political powers in their own right.

McLaughlin, the former Chelsea chief, forged close political ties to Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, hosting fund-raisers and urging his employees and tenants to attend political events for Murray and Governor Deval Patrick. Now, two grand juries are investigating whether McLaughlin broke the law — Murray himself had to answer questions under oath as part of the state investigation — since housing directors are legally banned from political fund-raising.

For years, McLaughlin’s work for Murray gave him a powerful ally he could turn to for favors — such as helping his son obtain a state job — or advice, exchanging nearly 200 cellphone calls with Murray in 2010 and 2011.

In Easton, state housing officials proved to be deferential to Horner. They pointedly say it was up to the local board — not them — to fire Horner if they were unsatisfied. However, the Housing and Community Development Department officials also concede that the problems reflect a bigger issue.

“There is clearly a need to reform the public housing system to increase accountability at local housing authorities for executive directors and board members in order to protect taxpayer dollars and ensure that residents are getting the services they need,” it said in a statement.

Since the Chelsea controversy erupted, state auditor Suzanne Bump has intensified her review of housing authority finances, issuing several tough reports over the past year, including the audit of Easton that found 23 problems, ranging from unsanitary apartments to money missing from the laundry room.

But the watchdog agency is trying to overcome a troubling history: Bump’s predecessor, A. Joseph DeNucci,failed through repeated audits over a decade to detect enormous financial irregularities in Springfield under Asselin or in Chelsea under McLaughlin.

Critics say that part of the problem in Massachusetts is the huge number of housing authorities — 242 — each run like a separate fiefdom, with its own board and a chief often selected for political rather than managerial skills. Only the state of Texas has more housing authorities than Massachusetts, making state or federal oversight of each individual authority challenging.

The vast number of authorities also strains the leadership talent pool, requiring 1,210 board members statewide. Many board members provide little real oversight — the five-member Chelsea board, which resigned en masse in 2011, didn’t even know how much they were paying McLaughlin — while others show signs of serious dysfunction.

At the tiny Georgetown housing authority, the executive director and two board members nearly came to blows during a 2010 confrontation in director Diane Jodoin’s office over how checks were being handled. Jodoin and Bertha Foster, then 78, and Kay Ogden, then 61, ended up swapping charges of kidnapping, harassment, and assault and battery in Haverhill District Court.

“I thought they were going to kill me,” Jodoin testified, explaining that she used her hands to move Foster aside when the pair tried to block her from leaving.

“She loses her temper,” Foster countered in an interview. “She just shoved me out of the way and slapped away my hand. She has a temper; let’s face it.”

To defuse the crisis, state officials placed Jodoin on paid leave while they conducted a 17-week investigation that blamed both sides for being “frequently confrontational.” Jodoin was reinstated, though investigators faulted her for withholding key information from her board. The criminal charges were dropped.

But that didn’t end Georgetown’s dysfunction: In 2011, board chairwoman Martha Robertson, a close ally of Jodoin, had to resign after pleading guilty to her third operating under the influence offense.

Robertson came to meetings reeking of what smelled like alcohol, board member Ed Kiley said.

“She was kind of silly at meetings,” Kiley recalled. “She had a plastic cup and a straw. When you got up close, you could smell it.”

Robertson could not be reached for comment. Local police who reviewed meeting videotapes said they could reach no conclusion on Robertson’s condition.

But when Patrick, furious over McLaughlin’s conduct in Chelsea, attempted to increase the professionalism of housing authorities by reducing their numbers, the idea was rejected almost immediately by the panel Patrick assembled to consider housing reforms. Patrick argued that a smaller number of regional authorities would be more cost-effective and accountable.

“The interests are just too entrenched to make it happen,” said one commission participant, who asked not to be identified for fear of alienating others on the panel. “You would have a thousand commissioners calling their state reps and senators complaining bitterly.”

Patrick settled for recommending more training for board members and a proposal to set up a new agency that could provide administrative support for authorities with fewer than 200 units, including Georgetown.

The Patrick administration plans to file a comprehensive bill on housing authorities governance in January.

Whatever the cause, Massachusetts now has numerous public housing directors who apparently have considerable time on their hands: McLaughlin worked only 15 full days in the office in 2011, based on a Globe review of cellphone records. In Peabody, WHDH-TV filmed former director Splaine frequenting Champions Pub and the Italian American Club on five days in 2009 when he claimed to be working.

Splaine did not return telephone calls. A lawyer for McLaughlin declined to comment.

McLaughlin’s close friend Kenneth Martin, meanwhile, has time enough to be the full-time housing director in Methuen and part-time director in Ayer, jobs that require a combined 57.5 hours a week and allow him to get around the statewide $160,000 cap on director’s pay. The two authorities pay Martin a combined $184,000 and, under his contracts, neither can dismiss him without paying him several years’ salary.

Joseph Lally in Winchester claims to work even more than Martin: a stunning 69 hours a week over the last three years between his $73,000 job in Winchester and his $82,000 post representing low-income people in court for the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

Lally, 59, acknowledged in an interview that his schedule is exhausting, but he insisted he is “fulfilling my obligations” to both the housing agency and his clients.

And Lally’s board said it sees no reason to question Lally’s second job as a lawyer.

“He’s a hard worker,” said Laura Glynn, the Winchester board chairwoman. “I really don’t care what he does in his off hours so long as” the agency is well-run.

But the public defenders’ office apparently did not know that he was also a housing director, and officials there immediately began an investigation when they found out.

The Committee for Public Counsel Services “has withheld all payments and all new case assignments to Attorney Lally pending completion of our audit,” wrote William E. Shay, director of audits at the public defenders’ office in a statement to the Globe on Oct. 4.

That same day, Lally called Glynn to announce his retirement after 11 years on the job — effective Oct. 5.

Susan Horner’s nearly 20-year tenure as housing director in Easton came to a similarly abrupt end when her husband provided board members with the text of e-mails using the screen name “EastonHA.”

“She is using Easton’s e-mail address to meet men for sexual relations and is doing it during company time,” wrote Mark Horner in January 2010 to board member Downey. The couple has since divorced.

The e-mails, obtained by the Globe, cover the last few months of 2009, showing Horner engaged in extensive discussions of sex and dating with several men.

“I want to go someplace with you where I can touch you, talk to you and even steal a kiss, but can’t truly have you,” wrote Horner to one man on Oct. 2, 2009.

Horner quietly resigned in April 2010, admitting only that she had “misused” authority property.

“When we came in, the place was a total disaster,” said ­Michael Forbes, the Mansfield housing authority executive director who is now managing the Easton agency in addition to his own duties under a contract with Easton that pays him $20,000.

“The records were a mess, the housing in disrepair, employees demoralized, and tenants extremely unhappy,” said Forbes, noting that Easton recently was ordered to repay HUD $17,475 for Horner’s poor record-keeping.

Mark Horner suggests Susan Horner’s misdeeds may have been more serious than inattentiveness: He showed a reporter a tractor with a “property of Easton Housing Authority” sticker on it at the North Attleborough home the couple once shared.

Authority records show that it was purchased for $7,500 in 2001 and “disposed” later for a sale price of zero. Greg Horne, the housing agency’s maintenance director, said he had no idea what happened to the tractor, but Mark Horner said it had been at his house for years, used to cut the grass and clear snow. He said his ex-wife claimed it was surplus.

Forbes said HUD regulators should have stepped in long ago, based on regular reports by Horner herself. But Forbes said he understood why they did not take action.

“For an agency the size of HUD, this was a tiny agency, almost irrelevant to them,” he said.

HUD officials say they’ve changed their ways since the scandals surrounding Horner, Covelle in Medford, and McLaughlin in Chelsea.

“The way things were done before — well, we do things differently now,” said Rhonda Siciliano, a HUD spokeswoman, about Easton. “There is follow-up. We take very seriously the money Congress appropriates for public housing. We want to ensure that the money is being properly spent.”

But Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, is unconvinced. He said HUD’s problems in Massachusetts reflect its larger failure to properly monitor thousands of housing authorities across the country.

“Lax oversight has created an environment for corrupt managers to flourish. HUD needs to step up its oversight,” Grassley said in a statement. “Transparency would help flush out the bad actors who have exploited the vacuum of scrutiny at the expense of the taxpayers and the people who need decent housing.”

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Scott Allen can be reached at allen@globe.com.

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