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MaineHousing Self-Audit Leaves Questions Unanswered

by Terrilyn Simpson

The Maine State Housing Authority issued a report late Friday afternoon purported to be a straightforward, independent investigation of the low-income housing inspection problems attached to MSHA — authored by a MSHA auditor.

The Norway Section 8 apartment debacle was acknowledged by MSHA and Avesta Housing, charged with inspecting the units, only after a series of investigative articles in the Norway, Maine based newspaper, the Advertiser Democrat. Pressure on MSHA and Avesta was further exacerbated when town officials — including the local fire chief — complained to the office of US Senator Susan Collins, about the deplorable conditions, which included waste bubbling into sinks. Tenants have additionally claimed they were terrorized by their landlady’s grandson whose resume includes a violent criminal record.

According to a multi-page introductory setup to the report by MSHA public information manager Deborah Turcotte, Director Dale McCormick asked MaineHousing’s internal auditor, “who reports,” according to Turcotte, “to MaineHousing’s Board of Commissioners and not the director…”

The problem is that no one told the commissioners the auditor was answerable to them. The commissioners received the report along with members of the public after the report had been vetted by McCormick and her staff and after it had been authored in large part by the two entities who were allegedly being investigated — MSHA and Avesta. Were the auditor answerable only to the commissioners, protocol would ostensibly dictate that the auditor would deliver the completed report directly into the hands of commissioners for dissemination.

That MSHA is claiming — and the mainstream press is reporting – that the MSHA auditor works for the board, came as a surprise to the board chair, Peter Anastos. “It’s news to me that she reports to us.” Anastos categorized the report as “very odd,” noting that it was substantially written by the subjects of the investigation, and that the approach was “certainly not at the board’s direction.” And as for the auditor being answerable only to the commissioners and “not the director,” according to Turcotte, Anastos said he received a call from MSHA on Friday afternoon while he was waiting for the report. The call was not from the auditor but from a MSHA/McCormick staffer who told Anastos that the report was taking a little longer than expected because they were going over it very carefully to make sure it was “just right.”

At the December board of commissioners meeting, auditor Linda Grotton doggedly sidestepped questions from MSHA board member and state treasurer Bruce Poliquin regarding the progress of her findings. When Poliquin persisted, McCormick ran interference — attempting to dissuade him from even discussing the investigation with Grotton — who McCormick is now claiming is answerable only to Poliquin and his fellow board members.

Even the “Audit Scope and Objectives” states that it was ‘“MaineHousing management” who directed the internal auditor.

And although Grotton was identified at the meeting as the person who would be conducting the investigation and completing the audit, the report is introduced by Turcotte and relies heavily on quotes from McCormick and first person premises from MSHA and Avesta – with Grotton’s name nowhere to be found. Much of the report relies on boiler plate phraseology and offers little substantiation regarding explanations as to why MSHA and Avesta completely failed at any kind of quality control in the oversight of the low income housing in Norway.

According to the report, the inspector did it (caused the problem) – or didn’t do it (adequately inspect the units). And then at Avesta and MSHA, who relied on the longtime “trusted Section 8 Housing Inspector” employed by Avesta, “no one was connecting the dots.”

Although the report includes quotes from the inspector, the report does not make clear whether she was interviewed by the auditor or whether the information about the inspector — of her feeling “jaded” or feeling “it doesn’t matter anymore…..” or feeling tired, came from a direct interview with the inspector or were unusually personal personnel information shared secondhand by Avesta Housing. The report does not make clear whether the inspector, who has been named by MSHA, gave permission for the personal information to be made public. Public officials do not typically release private details about employees.

Under the heading “What Breakdown In Controls Allowed the Situation in Norway….” are categories such as “After years of working alone in the field, the Section 8 Housing Inspector became weary and apathetic” and another that concludes she opposed Avesta management changes. The report includes excerpts and examples from the Advertiser Democrat.

But one excerpt from the paper is markedly omitted.

The headline in a Nov. 17, 2011 Advertiser Democrat article challenges “Is Inspector a scapegoat?” The article by reporters AM Sheehan and and Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, opens with “ ‘Kay does a good job….Kay’s knowledge of HUD regulations, policies and procedures are very good and she is a great resource to me in this area…. She is committed to Avesta’s and MH’s missions….‘

In the following paragraph is the kicker. “So reads the August 3 performance evaluation for Kay Hawkins, the Section 8 HCV inspector for Avesta Housing. Hawkins was evaluated by Linda Poland, her supervisor,
and the form was signed by two other Avesta administrators, including President Dana Totman.”

Totman previously worked as Deputy Director of MaineHousing.

The MSHA audit makes no mention of the evaluation.

On the last page of the report is a glossed summary entitled the Avesta Response. It contains such statements as “It is our top priority to ensure that families are living in safe conditions…. The living conditions outlined…. are unacceptable and do not represent the quality, safe, and decent housing that Avesta Housing stands for.” Avesta, the agency paid to oversee inspection of the units, then claims, “Because we had no record that any tenant, town official, police, fire official, or social service agency had ever complained about these poor living conditions in Norway….” that the agency “was completely blind-sided….”

Again, that conclusion in spite of the fact that Avesta had been paid to know.

Avesta next claimed that “working closely with MaineHousing, Avesta took swift and immediate action….”
That statement, however, is contradicted by a brief exchange between Poliquin and the auditor.
At the MSHA board meeting, one of the questions McCormick attempted to prevent Poliquin from asking auditor Linda Grotton addressed the issue of time frame — that Poliquin had heard Grotton acknowledge that MSHA and Avesta had started receiving reports as much as two years previous that the inspections were failing. Grotton admitted Poliquin had heard correctly.

In spite of the numerous low-income housing problems perpetuated by the lack of appropriate procedures and quality control measures at MSHA, with the release of the report, McCormick immediately announced MSHA will begin a takeover of all Section 8 programs statewide — including those from agencies other than Avesta.

Read the MSHA report here >>