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Baltimore Housing Authority eliminated its Inspector General

Leaders of Baltimore's embattled public housing authority late last year eliminated the office designed to root out misconduct and hold employees accountable.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City eliminated the position of inspector general in December as a cost-saving measure, a spokeswoman for city housing chief Paul T. Graziano confirmed last week. As a result, the position was vacant as residents in three public housing developments filed suit this fall alleging that some maintenance staff refused to make repairs unless the women agreed to provide sexual favors.

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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is now investigating those allegations, Graziano said last week.

But the absence of an inspector general in Baltimore to oversee investigations raises questions about oversight at the city housing authority, several city officials said.

"We need somebody who doesn't have to be afraid to tell the truth about conditions and do something about it," City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said Friday.

Baltimore's housing authority had an inspector general since at least 2009 and had been one of the nation's three biggest housing authorities to employ the position. Chicago and New York City still have theirs in place.

Baltimore's 11,000 units put it among the largest public housing systems in the country even though the city is just 26th-largest in terms of population. The housing authority's budget is approximately $340 million, including $84 million that is allocated to the operating budget. The balance goes to the rent subsidy program, debt service and other budgetary categories, according to the agency.

Housing Authority spokeswoman Tania Baker cited "budgetary constraints" as the reason for eliminating the position.

"When the most recent Inspector General left HABC, we did a thorough review of the role and functions of the Office of the Inspector General of HABC and determined they should be consolidated as a unit under HABC's Office of Legal Affairs in light of severe budgetary constraints and to better coordinate efforts," she said in an emailed statement.

Minutes of meetings of the housing authority's commissioners mention no public discussion of the changes.

In 2013, the agency tapped a former FBI supervisor to be the inspector general. Kevin White had spent 21 years investigating violent and organized crime in New York City and Washington.

Last week Baker declined to discuss the circumstances of White's departure, citing the need for confidentiality in personnel matters. White, whose salary was $125,000, also declined comment.

Five housing authority investigators now report to its Office of Legal Affairs, Baker said, adding that the agency's investigative and audit functions are still being carried out. It was unclear whether the inspectors were made aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct by maintenance staff.

Clarke said she is "absolutely very concerned" about the authority's decision to eliminate the inspector general position.

"There are too many complaints of a serious nature that have gone unattended. And this position is the logical one that could have responded," she said.

She said the sex-for-repairs allegations show that oversight of the housing system needs to be "radically changed."

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Eleven women are plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that was filed Sept. 28 against the housing authority. It alleges that maintenance men demanded sex as a condition for making repairs at Gilmor Homes, Westport and Govans Manor. Some of the women describe sexual assault, others harassment. All claim violations of their constitutional and fundamental rights, including the right to physical security.

Meanwhile, the housing authority is facing criticism from residents who say a lack of maintenance — including leaking pipes, rodent infestations and mold — has made their homes unlivable. To generate money for repairs, the agency is selling about 40 percent of its units to private developers, who are charged with renovating them. Money from the sales will be used to repair the city's remaining public housing, officials say.

Graziano declined repeated requests for an interview for this article; other authority officials referred questions to Baker. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also declined to comment.

Graziano for 15 years has held dual roles as head of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, a city agency, and the federally funded Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which is independent from city government. Graziano's annual salary of $219,900 is paid partly by the city and partly by the housing authority.

The housing authority is not subject to supervision by Baltimore's inspector general, city auditors or other city officials.

In 2013, the authority's inspector general investigated allegations that top agency officials hired lower-level staff to do contracting work at their homes, including painting, caulking, door replacement and mold removal. The employees were disciplined for showing a lack of good judgment, according to an agency report released at the time.

"Individuals in positions of authority, especially at the executive or senior levels of the agency, are responsible for setting the tone in which the agency is operated and viewed," the inspector general's report said. "That tone should be one of integrity, honesty and responsibility."

Jaime Alison Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore law school, said there are stark differences between the roles of an agency's inspector general and its legal counsel. An inspector general's office provides auditors and investigators with a focus on eliminating waste and fraud. An in-house legal counsel is charged with serving the agency.

"That is a different role than an investigator or whistle-blower function," Lee said.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said shifting investigators to the general counsel's office compromises their independence.

"You need an independent person in the role so they are not co-opted by the agency itself," she said. "The problem is, the general counsel is the attorney for the agency. It puts them in an unfair position to go after the agency's employees."

Bevan-Dangel said any money the housing agency may have saved by consolidating the offices isn't worth the cost.

Recent allegations show why an independent inspector general is so important, she said. "Now we're paying the real price for it, which is a loss of the public trust."

Councilman Bill Henry, who chairs the council's housing committee, said he has long been concerned about the structure of the housing authority and its lack of accountability to the city's elected officials.

"It's unclear to me that anyone locally has any oversight of the agency," Henry said.

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