When his boss Jay Chapa fired former city housing director Jerome Walker on May 7, he did it in a hotly worded letter outlining a litany of wrongdoings by Walker that added up to one scary bottom line for the city: Walker had overseen misuses of federal housing funds so egregious that the city is now at risk of losing or having to pay back millions of federal dollars. Not to mention, of course, that under Walker’s 14-year reign, poor people who needed housing help got precious little of it from the City of Fort Worth.
Mayor Mike Moncrief told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he was “embarrassed” by Chapa’s findings and suggested that if the city had not merged the housing and economic development departments last year, the problems might never have been uncovered. In all, the city council’s reaction seemed to be that they were shocked, shocked, to find gambling at Rick’s.
In fact, Walker’s misdeeds were outlined two years ago in stories by Fort Worth Weekly that won a statewide investigative reporting award. The illicit practices, questionable funds use, and provision of shoddy housing and home repairs by city-paid contractors had been reported repeatedly by citizens during that period to Moncrief and other members of the council – most of whom are still serving.
City spokesperson Jason Lamers said that the city knew of “long-standing issues with the housing department” but “believed that things were being fixed.” Yet in case after case, specific problems pointed out by the Weekly in 2007 were never fixed.
Two former city housing employees, who were instrumental in bringing the department’s failings to the attention of city officials, the federal government, and the Weekly, aren’t satisfied. Fired by Walker for, they say, pointing out the problems in his department, Theresa Thomas and Lisa Weaver still want their jobs back. And they also want to know why no one would listen to them.
Neither Moncrief nor Chapa would speak with the Weekly to answer those questions.
City Manager Dale Fisseler said in an e-mail that, while Walker made “significant contributions to the housing needs” of the city, the most recent HUD information made it clear that “it was time for a change.”
When the city’s housing and economic development departments were merged in October, Walker was demoted to deputy director under Chapa. In recent months, Chapa discovered that he had inherited a very large and expensive can of worms. He found, for instance, that for the past two years Walker had failed to provide the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – the agency that approves and monitors federal housing dollars sent to municipalities – with detailed plans for the many housing programs the city wanted HUD money for. Money intended to rehabilitate homes in low-income neighborhoods was languishing in the bank unspent, and many of the homes that had been built or renovated with city funds over the years were substandard. Home-owners’ complaints had been ignored.
And in what may prove to be an even bigger headache for Walker as well as the city, Chapa wrote that he had evidence that Walker’s department had authorized rehabilitation work on homes without obtaining building permits “as required by the city’s own regulations.” Worse, the department was found to be authorizing payment for permits that contractors had never obtained. That could mean the city will have to repay HUD for all the money spent on the phantom permits and could also result in the city being investigated by the federal government for fraud. According to the city’s legal department, violating the ordinance regarding construction permits is a misdemeanor that carries a $2,000 fine for each day the offense occurs.
Katie Worsham, director of HUD’s Fort Worth office, said her agency will give Chapa a chance to correct the deficiencies caused by the authorization of non-permitted work. But, she said, “If [the city’s corrective action] doesn’t satisfy HUD, then we will get involved.”
For two years in a row Walker’s requests to HUD for housing funds had lacked required details about how the money would be spent. Those lapses generated multiple warning letters from HUD that future funding would be cut off if Walker didn’t correct the mistakes.
In early May Chapa submitted the requested details on how the $6.6 million for this year’s housing programs would be spent. “We are still in the process of reviewing the information,” Worsham said, and if the city’s plans pass muster, the money will be released. Because Chapa is obviously committed to cleaning up the department, she said, HUD is giving the city extra time to correct the deficiencies in the budget requests. But Chapa also must provide missing details about how last year’s housing money was spent, Worsham said, or the city will still lose this year’s federal housing funds.
Chapa also wrote, in Walker’s termination letter, that shoddy construction and repair work accepted by city staffers will now have to be corrected, costing the city even more money.
Thomas, a former real estate broker for the department who also wrote grant requests and monitored entitlement funds, and Weaver, a former housing inspector, said they realized as early as 2003 that the department was mismanaging millions of dollars in federal entitlement funds – with more than $12 million unaccounted for in that year alone. When they confronted Walker about the missing money, he told them, according to Thomas, “Keep your mouths shut. … I’ll deal with that when HUD finds it.” That year a HUD audit confirmed that millions of dollars of entitlement funds couldn’t be accounted for. However, nothing happened, even though a HUD auditor gave each supervisor specific instructions on what needed to be done to clean up the deficiencies, Thomas said.
“Nothing was ever done. It just got worse,” she said last week.
Weaver said even her decisions on housing inspections, if they were negative, were overridden by Walker, allowing substandard housing to be approved.
“There is no excuse for the mayor or any city council member to act ‘shocked’ that Jerome had been fired” for mismanaging federal funds, Weaver said.
She and Thomas went to all of the council members plus Moncrief, then-city manager Charles Boswell, and then-assistant city manager Fisseler.
They told the officials what they knew, “which was just about everything listed in Jay Chapa’s termination letter,” Thomas said. They were ignored by everyone except council members Chuck Silcox, now deceased, and Donavan Wheatfall, who is no longer on the council. “Chuck and Donavan couldn’t get anyone to back them on looking into the department,” Thomas said.
They were fired by Walker in 2006 on what they claim were “trumped-up charges” of abusing their positions as city employees by selling real estate and doing housing inspections for their own profit on their days off. Both said they had permission from Walker to do so.
In 2007, they brought their stories – backed by details, addresses, names, and boxes of documents – to the Weekly. At that time they asked that their names not be used.
Long before they were fired, the two women began to document the wrongdoing they saw within the department. After their firing, they took their information to HUD. In 2006, at the request of an investigator in HUD’s Office of Inspector General, the agency’s independent investigative arm, Thomas said she carted four boxes of those documents to the regional office in Dallas. She said she was told then that the OIG had been looking at the department since 2002. An OIG spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny that there is an investigation.
Both women lost the appeals of their firings and have had a hard time making a living since. Today Thomas is working as an independent real-estate broker, and Weaver is a freelance housing inspector for private contractors. They are still bitter at the way they were treated by the city, especially in light of Walker’s firing.
“If they had listened when we first went to them, think of the grief and the money that the city would have been spared,” Thomas said. “I was there [at the city] to serve a purpose, to serve the residents of Fort Worth, and I wasn’t allowed to do my job.” Both she and Weaver said they wanted an apology from the city – along with three years of back pay.
Thomas and Weaver also documented foreclosures on houses built by the city that were sold to unqualified families. They have also charged that some of the homes were so poorly built that the intended owners refused to take possession. The women also raised questions about the legality of a nonprofit construction company formed by Walker and his assistant Don Cager under the umbrella of the Fort Worth Housing Finance Corporation, through which all HUD money flows. That company, City Construction Company, built or remodeled numerous houses with HUD funds – in the place of private contractors who formerly did city work. The board of directors of the FWHFC is the city council. Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks and Fisseler are named in the City Construction Company’s incorporation papers as managers of the company. In an earlier interview both said they had no involvement with the company.
Some of the houses described in the Weekly‘s 2007 stories still sit empty. One, at 2912 Walker St. in Stop Six, a low-income neighborhood of mostly minority families, has been empty since it was built in 2003 after it failed to pass inspection and its owner refused to take it because of its poor construction. In 2007 its broken windows were boarded up, and the interior had been stripped to the baseboards. Walker told the Weekly then that the house would be repossessed by the city, renovated, and put on the market. Today it is still empty. Lamers said the city has made $26,000 worth of repairs there and now has an “interested buyer.”
Two years ago Ruby Walker’s home on May Street on the city’s old South Side was found by an independent housing inspector hired by the Weekly to be riddled with code violations from its roof to its foundation. It had been built in 2004 by City Construction under the supervision of Cager.
Since then, “Nothing’s been done,” said the 78-year-old widow, who lives on a small pension and Social Security (and is not related to Jerome Walker). She has taken her complaints of shoddy work to the city so many times that “I’ve lost count,” she said. The city sent inspectors out once who told her the house was fine, she said. “But it’s not. All those things [the Weekly inspector] found have just gotten worse.”
Cracks in the foundation and driveway have gotten wider, she said. Her power goes out regularly. An electrician from her church who installed her new water heater found that the city’s electrical contractor had not put the right kind of breakers in to carry the voltage the house required, so he installed new ones.
“It’s still just a cracker box, and I can’t get the city to do a damn thing,” Walker said.
Lamers said that the “information we now have shows … a history of indifference at best.” Things will be different in the future, he said. “These programs remain a priority.”