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City of Longview disciplines three housing employees

By Jimmy Isaac jisaac@news-journal.com
Nov. 16, 2011 at 10 p.m.


Three Longview Housing Authority employees, including its director, have been reprimanded after a municipal probe uncovered a culture of favoritism and strong-arming.

Housing and Community Development Director Anji Johnson, Housing Supervisor Cheteva Marshall and 20-year senior caseworker Tonya Pierce threatened at least two property owners and made other exceptions for the benefit of Longview Housing Authority client LaTonya Ivory, the probe concluded.

All three employees were placed on six months' job probation, while Johnson and Marshall served two-day suspensions without pay. Marshall was to return to her job today.

City records obtained by the News-Journal also revealed Ivory received other benefits the other 841 clients and 220 landlords involved in the Housing Choice Voucher Program were not afforded. Those benefits included utility supplement checks made out to Ivory rather than deposited directly with the utility company and being allowed to skirt mandatory meetings without retribution.

State law prevents city staff members from releasing information about employees' family members, but research indicates Ivory may be a relative of Johnson.

Assistant City Manager Chuck Ewings said the situation was "an isolated incident of poor judgment" that should not reflect on a program "that has and continues to do great work for the community."

"There does not appear to be a history of similar policy violations," he added. "Any future violations could result in further discipline."

The investigation, led by the city's review team of Community Services Assistant Director Kara Spitz, City Prosecutor Terry Jackson and Human Resources Administrator Phyllis Turner, revealed possible systemic abuse involving Ivory's case dating to at least four months before she became a Longview Housing Authority client in September 2010.

<strong>Strongarm tactics</strong>

After living nearly 12 months in a three-bedroom house at 906 Meadowbrook Drive without paying rent because of her housing voucher status, city records showed, Ivory ended her lease with landlord James Davenport and applied for a rental property with Reliable Management Co.

After Davenport withheld Ivory's $700 security deposit citing carpet damage, Davenport received threatening calls from Marshall and Ivory's senior caseworker, Pierce. On Oct. 13, Marshall sent a letter - with Johnson's approval - to Davenport demanding return of Ivory's security deposit within three days or risk disbarment from the housing program.

Marshall's letter, delivered to Davenport before any due process could be achieved in court, ended with the statement: "Failure to return the security deposit within three business days of this letter will result in disbarment from participation in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. It will also be recommended by this office that the Department of Housing and Urban Development office institute an administrative or judicial action against you for violation of the Fair Housing Act or any other federal equal opportunity requirements."

Davenport contacted the city's Community Services Division, which oversees the housing authority.

<strong>Disbarment is rare</strong>

Reliable Management Co. landlord Pate Greening told city officials he, too, was having problems concerning Ivory's case. Greening told investigators Johnson called him personally to ask that he overlook the lack of references on Ivory's application for housing. Greening said he received a call from Marshall about three weeks later in which she "argumentatively" questioned him about his denial of that application.

All of Reliable Management's tenants must pass a screening test with verifiable references.

After the review team's probe ended Oct. 27, the team asked that the city rescind the Oct. 13 letter concerning Davenport's disbarment.

In at least 20 years, there has been one property owner disbarred from the program. In that situation, city staff said, a landlord was taking side payments from tenants.

Attempts to reach the respective landlords for comment were not successful. Greening did not return messages left at Reliable Management, while Davenport declined to comment on the advice of his attorney. Municipal records show Davenport has requested documents related to the case.

<strong>Procedural changes</strong>

The review team also recommended new internal procedures to better track tenant/landlord disputes, ensure due process before any landlord disbarment action, provide more education to tenants and landlords on property damages and accurate record-keeping, and ensure fair and equitable treatment of all persons without favoritism.

Johnson was hired Sept. 15, 2008. She is paid $66,687 annually.

Marshall is paid $43,904 annually. She was hired June 11, 2007.

Pierce has worked for the city since May 20, 1991, and is paid $33,798 annually.

According to municipal staff, Ivory remains a housing authority client and is still searching for housing. She has no forwarding address.

An online search revealed Johnson has a family member named LaTonya Ivory. According to mylife.com, a 60 million-member website dedicated to work and personal connections, the two are listed as family members, with Ivory having addresses in Las Vegas and Longview. Ivory came to Longview from the Nevada city.

It was not known how Ivory and Johnson are related, as city attorneys redacted information revealing their relationship in documents released to the newspaper. That is a requirement of Texas Government Code Sec. 552.117, which prevents a government agency from releasing information about an employee's family members.

<strong>Other findings</strong>

The review team's probe also revealed more accusations of housing management favoritism, mostly from other Longview Housing Authority employees.

"Four employees believe there is a very evident clique in the office comprised of the manager, supervisor and a senior caseworker, and that different rules apply to them as far as accountability and work performance are concerned," Spitz reported to Community Services Director Laura Hill in an Oct. 31 memo.

One employee said she declined to manage Ivory's case because it had missing information, including no initial inspections of the property and no housing authority program contract. Marshall took the case and performed the initial inspection of Ivory's rental unit from her desk, the employee said. She also told Spitz all utility payments for housing clients were directly deposited with a utility company, but housing was cutting a utility check directly to Ivory.

"I also saw that they qualified her for a three-bedroom unit, but her kids were not living there," the employee told Spitz, "but that is always difficult to prove. An exception was made to get her a three-bedroom, because due to the ages of her children, she really qualified for a two-bedroom."

In response, Ewings said, "The housing authority is generally unable to monitor living arrangements. Clients do provide documentation verifying their legal dependents to participate in the program. However, it is the responsibility of the participating landlord to monitor who is authorized to live in a housing unit based upon the signed lease that identifies the allowed occupants."

<strong>'Clients are frustrated'</strong>

Also, Ivory was not required to attend mandatory briefing meetings or make-up meetings, though the penalty for missing the meetings is usually automatic termination from the program, the employee said.

One employee also made negative allegations about Pierce's work habits and frequent absenteeism, which appeared to occur with Johnson's blessing.

"Clients are frustrated and leave paperwork and need to speak to her," an employee told Spitz, according to municipal records. "They can't get her and need assistance. I feel bad for them."

During employee counseling Nov. 8, Spitz told Johnson and Marshall they violated five municipal rules or policies:

<ul> <li>Unsatisfactory or inefficient in performing duties;</li> <li>Discourteous, offensive and abusive in behavior either by attitude, language or conduct to the public or fellow employees;</li> <li>Committing an act or conduct showing a lack of good moral character;</li> </ul>

An accumulation of infractions that, singly, are minor, but when reviewed together indicate a pattern of unsatisfactory behavior;

And, has committed other acts or conduct of equal gravity to reasons enumerated in Section 3.03 of the city's municipal work handbook.

Ivory remains on the Housing Choice Voucher Program and is searching for a rental property. Pierce remains Ivory's caseworker, Ewings said.

Johnson also serves on the Longview Nonprofit Coalition board.

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