In the scandal over political fixer Michael McLaughlin’s stewardship of the Chelsea Housing Authority, one big mystery has been how the public housing agency managed to receive high inspection ratings from federal overseers even as it lost track of millions of dollars in federal modernization funds and paid McLaughlin an outrageous salary. A recent Globe story hinted at a disturbing possibility: that someone with inside information from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development tipped the Chelsea authority in advance about which of its units would be subject to surprise inspections.
Federal prosecutors, with good reason, are looking into that possibility, but the question of how to prevent future abuses in other communities remains. It’s not clear HUD officials understood just how much it could be worth to a local authority to perform well on the mandated inspections. For if they did understand, the department would surely have taken more aggressive steps to protect the integrity of the process.
McLaughlin, who managed to arrange an annual salary of $360,000 for running a small public housing authority, has pleaded guilty to four felony counts related to hiding his salary. But the Globe’s Sean P. Murphy and Andrea Estes offered evidence of a separate problem — that McLaughlin received early notice, weeks before scheduled inspections, of which 25 Chelsea Housing Authority apartments would be visited by federal inspectors. Several authority employees told the Globe that they would then be sent to clean up the apartments in question before federal inspectors could see them. It’s unclear who at HUD might have provided the information.
What is clear is that greater security is needed. Housing authorities that score well on HUD inspections don’t just get bragging rights; they also get less oversight from the federal agency and, at times, more money. Yet by some accounts, the list of Chelsea Housing Authority apartments to be inspected was drawn up a month in advance and entered into a system that a large number of people at the federal department had the ability to use. If so, what’s surprising is that more inspection lists don’t slip out. HUD should tighten up its security.