Officials contend that two former high-ranking public housing executives in southern Illinois bilked taxpayers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by using public funds for boozy, all-expense paid trips to Las Vegas, gifts for coworkers and lavish meals.

Former Alexander County Housing Authority (ACHA) Executive Directors James Wilson and Martha Franklin double-charged the local Housing Authority for hotel stays, personal meals and other splurges, according to a complaint filed on Nov. 24 with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Hearings and Appeals that seeks 125 civil penalties against the pair totaling $720,000 and another $188,000 in fees. Wilson was additionally accused of failing to report civil rights violations in 2014. 

“Every dollar misspent on personal travel and other expenses is a dollar that could support the individuals and families we serve,” said Dane Narode, associate general counsel of HUD’s Office of Program Enforcement, in a statement issued Tuesday. “Taxpayers deserve to know that the public programs they support are helping to meet the needs of the many, not the few.”

Between 2012 and 2015, the local agency received $9 million in subsidies through operating and capital funds, much of it under fraudulent claims made by Wilson and Franklin, who serviced as finance director before taking over in 2013, according to the 46-page complaint. According to The Southern Illinoisan, HUD took possession of ACHA in 2016, “citing years of mismanagement and discriminatory practices by local managers HUD was charged with overseeing,” the local newspaper reported.

In addition to the fraudulent spending — which included stays at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas and, in once case, a spending spree at Walmart that netted 48 gift cards totaling $1,200 and 10 turkeys valued at $152 — the complaint also accuses Wilson of filing false statements regarding the Housing Authority’s compliance with civil rights laws and lead-based paint rules.

Under federal civil rights laws, including the Fair Housing Act, agency officials nationwide are required to certify that HUD buildings are in compliance each year.

But in 2014 Wilson and Franklin falsely claimed that two public housing apartment complexes known for being unclean and dangerous — McBride Place and Elmwood in Cairo, Illinois — were appropriately integrated, even though the vast majority of residents (over 95 percent) living in the two projects were African American. As of the 2012 Census, Alexander County was 61 percent white.

When agents from HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity investigated the matter and found evidence of segregation, however, Wilson and Franklin became defiant.

“Wilson stated to HUD staff that he was not going to force different races to live together,” according to the HUD statement. “Franklin responded to HUD’s findings by stating that it was the way ACHA has always been and she did not intend to change it.”

Moreover, in 2003 it was discovered that a child living in one of the project’s units had an elevated blood lead level, and in 2017 HUD detected the presence of lead-based paint in both complexes’ stair risers and stair stringers after an inspection.

HUD alleges that under Wilson and Franklin’s watch, ACHA failed to comply with Lead Safe Housing Rules and Regulations by neglecting to conduct lead-based paint risk assessments and notify tenants of known lead-related hazards, among other violations, which Wilson is accused of failing to report to HUD. 

“The ACHA’s lead-based paint certifications were false, as Wilson knew or should have known of the ACHA’s ongoing violation of the applicable lead-based paint laws,” the complaint states.

Email Jotham Sederstrom

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