The Easy Way Out

by Leslie Turk

Wednesday, August 24, 2011
By Leslie Turk

HUD capitulates, paying two former housing assistance contractors 40 grand.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011
By Leslie Turk

HUD capitulates, paying two former housing assistance contractors 40 grand.

"Ridiculous." That's what longtime Lafayette Housing Authority attorney Daniel Stanford says of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department's decision to settle lawsuits - quietly, had local news media not asked last Wednesday - by two former contractors who worked on the controversial Disaster Housing Assistance Program.

Linda Jefferson and Myra Parker, who were terminated Aug. 13, 2010, as Lafayette Housing Authority DHAP case managers along with three other workers, filed separate suits for back pay. Both said they were terminated without cause and were not given the 30-day notification required by their written contracts - which, as Stanford succinctly pointed out after the first suit was filed late last year, had long since expired and were never renewed. Jefferson also sued for defamation of character.

And without so much as putting up a fight, HUD and the LHA settled and paid them a whopping $40,000. "The Housing Authority of Lafayette (HACL) recently settled lawsuits brought against it by Linda Jefferson ($10,000) and Myra Parker ($30,000). The settlements have been paid," HUD Regional Public Affairs Officer Patricia A. Campbell wrote in an email response to The Independent last Wednesday.

"While the Housing Authority is confident it would have prevailed in court, the HA chose to settle, on the advice of its legal counsel, because the cost of continued litigation would have exceeded the amount of the settlements. HACL's focus is on moving forward, and providing the best possible services to residents and the community."

Say what? No wonder former City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams wants "his money" too. He filed suit Aug. 12, seeking $19,560.

Stanford, who has represented the LHA for 12 years, is not the "legal counsel" who advised settling the cases. Rather, the unidentified counsel is likely a law firm hired by LHA's insurance company.

Jefferson, Parker and Williams, along with Beatrice Wilson (aka Porsha Evans) and Charlie Esie, were hired in 2007 to work on the disaster housing program, which was created to help people displaced by hurricanes. The workers were terminated by the LHA board in August 2010, on the recommendation of Stanford and then-Executive Director Walter Guillory, after an audit pointed out numerous deficiencies in how the program was conducted and managed. For example, when the LHA's 2009 books were reviewed, auditors found that the case managers were paid a hefty $37/hour for 40 hours each week (along with a monthly $600 car allowance) but were not turning in time sheets or any other supporting documentation of their work.

Some of the contractors had other jobs; Williams had multiple jobs including a full-time position at UL Lafayette. In large part due to the troubled DHAP, the LHA got the attention of the state legislative auditor, inspector general for HUD, which funds the DHAP, and the FBI. The housing agency has been embroiled in controversies of alleged corruption and mismanagement for the past year, with HUD now running its day-to-day operations.

In their suits, the former workers (the clerk's office had no record of suits filed against the housing authority by Wilson and Esie) include a copy of the contracts they signed with LHA, documents that shows the contracts ending in March 2010, five months before they were terminated. They also include a letter from FEMA and HUD stating that funding for the program would be extended to Oct. 31, 2010. Yet the written contracts with the LHA were never renewed.

Attorney Stanford makes his position on the matter clear: After March 31 the DHAP workers were operating as independent contractors without a contract and subject to termination at any time, with or without cause. "Basically, the contracts lapsed," he says. "They were kind of on an as-needed basis."

The discrepancy in what Jefferson and Parker were paid and what Williams is seeking remains a mystery, as all three were paid the same amount and terminated the same day.

In her February 2011 suit, Parker argues that Louisiana law states that a contract of employment may be written or oral and maintains that LHA former deputy director, Jonathan Carmouche, verbally extended the contract. But Stanford says Carmouche was not empowered or authorized to issue any extensions, and maintains that while verbal contracts are valid in Louisiana, once a written contract is in place, any extensions must also be written. He says a simple written addendum to the contract is all that was needed to make it valid.

Parker says in the lawsuit that if she had been paid until Oct. 31, 2010, she would have received $16,280 but then argues that because the LHA failed to comply with the provisions of R.S. 23:631, she is entitled to 90 days of wages at the rate of $296 per day.

And while it's arguable that the real legal world often works that way, a taxpayer-funded organization like the LHA should not favor expediency over what's right, Stanford says. Stanford also fears that HUD's decision to settle these matters rather than litigate - at what he believes would have been a substantially lower cost - sets a dangerous precedent. "You encourage other people to bring frivolous lawsuits," he says.

Case in point: Williams. Stanford, however, believes HUD will view this lawsuit differently. "It sounds to me like there was some element of fraud. If not fraud, deception," Stanford says in reference to Williams' work on the DHAP. In accounting for more than 90 hours that overlapped between his jobs at UL and contract work he performed for the LHA, Williams has claimed that employees of his nonprofit training center also worked on the program. But Stanford says that won't fly. "Chris is the one who signed the contract. How can a non-profit make a profit? Chris was doing this for profit."