I received information in late August 2016 that Erica Morris at the Covington Housing Authority (CHA) was misusing her fleet fuel card and was buying gift cards from Home Depot and Lowes by using the CHA’s revolving card accounts and then converting the cards to personal use. As a former Covington police officer and financial investigator, I was interested in finding out more about this alleged theft. I also learned that the thefts had been reported to Greg Williams in May of 2016. When I called the CHA to find out where to send an open records request, Ms. Morris was the one that answered my call. She directed me to send the request to her. I did send in an open records request on September 2 by certified mail and by email to the CHA attorney. The letter sat in the CHA post office box for a week before it was picked up.
I asked for copies of credit card statements and purchase card statements among other things. Initially, the reply from CHA executive director Greg Williams indicated that I would receive the items requested. On the date that I was to receive the records I received a letter stating that I would be receiving nothing on my request. Keep in mind, some items requested had absolutely nothing to do with the thefts, such as a copy of their most recent audit report. I was told by Mr. Williams that the records I requested were not going to be released at that time because of a police investigation. I waited for about a month before inquiring as to the status of my request.
I called Mr. Williams in mid-October asking about the status of my request. He said he couldn’t talk to me about it and to call the CHA attorney. After some discussion, Mr. Williams agreed to send me some of the items I had requested but not the banking and credit card info. I called the attorney, Hillary Edgar, and asked her what law enforcement agency was conducting the investigation that prevented them from releasing the documents? She refused to tell me. The only thing she would say is it was a local law enforcement agency. I called the Covington Police and Newton County D.A.’s offices and they both told me they did not have an investigation in progress. I then filed a complaint with the Georgia Attorney General’s office (AG). The AG told me that the basis the CHA had used to deny my request was not appropriate. Even after CHA was notified by the AG about this, they continued to refuse me my legal right to access the records. I began alerting various media outlets on or about October 24th to this situation
I was reading the Covington News On October 30th as saw the where the CHA reported the alleged thefts to Covington Police on October 26th. When I saw this I was confused and that confusion quickly turned to anger. I had been straight up lied to by the CHA. Why had I been told that my records request had been withheld because of a police investigation in September? How could there have been a police investigation in September when apparently nobody had called the police until October?! I then began to try and find out as much as possible about what exactly was going on the CHA.
I decided to attend to CHA board meeting in December. I learned that many if not all the records I had requested were missing. Missing? How? When? Mr. Williams had to order records for many months from Home Depot and BB&T. Some of these records pertained to periods that the CHA had already undergone their HUD audits. Were the records present for the audit? Did they go missing after the audit, or did these records suddenly disappear after the open records request was made? I still don’t have an answer for these questions. Nobody will tell me. The public has a right to know! It is our duty to ask these questions and our rights granted by the U.S. Constitution to made inquiries and make our grievances know to the government. In reply, we should be given the simple courtesy of the truth at least; not some fabrication based on some tenuous legal theory to try and dupe the public!
Even more disturbing is the fact that now Mr. Williams has gone on record that he didn’t know about any of this until Ms. Morris confessed to him. Where is the record of the confession? When was it made? Who was it made to? I think all of these things would be important to maintain of file in a personnel file. It took me all of two minutes to look at the records I finally received in December to make a determination that there exists probable cause to arrest Ms. Morris. I’m no judge or lawyer, but given my past experience with drafting warrant applications I am confident law enforcement could have taken action, if they had been allowed to, but they weren’t. The case is now in the hands of HUD OIG. I understand federal money was stolen, but it was stolen from a local government. If the City of Covington had a police car that was purchased with grant money and it was stolen, would the FBI be called to investigate? No. How is it that Ms. Morris’ resignation letter is dated August 29th, but she was working there in September when I called the CHA office? Why is it that today the GBI tells me they have no records related to this case? How can that be? Didn’t Chief Cotton call and request the investigation? Who made the decision to send this local case to HUD?
Because of the way the CHA chose to respond to this incident, assets that could have been recovered through search and seizure warrants have been lost. This money is gone, the property is surely been disposed of and we the taxpayers on the hook for at least $60,000 that was stolen from the CHA and it appears the director can’t be trusted. What is the Board going to do? What is the Covington City Council going to do? The city council appoints the CHA board.
I also reached out to Mayor Johnston when I read the News article about his concern for what was going on at the CHA. He could have attended the meeting last week. Did he? No. I emailed and called him so I could inform him of what I knew. I guess he’s not as concerned as he would have us believe.
This is embarrassing for our community to have such dysfunctional governing bodies and dishonest employees going unchecked for as long as it has. Not just the CHA, but it appears that most governments and authorities in Newton County can’t seem to go more than a few months before the next scandal erupts.
And what about the 681 residents served by the CHA? What about them? What program services were not funded because of these thefts and apparent gross mismanagement? What about the children and their parents that live in the CHA properties? What did they forego in all this?
There will be more on this, you can rest assured.
Barry McIntosh, CPA