Ousted whistleblower sues
Terminated Executive Director Tanya Wilson of the Orange Housing Authority (OHA) has filed a whistleblower suit against the quasi-governmental agency for what she claims was retaliation due to her cooperation in a federal audit of the agency. Board commissioners at OHA removed Wilson from her position without warning, she said, a little more than a year into her appointment, effective Friday, March 8. This makes the second executive director the OHA board has let go in little more than a year. The previous executive director, Frank Anderson, was removed from his post at the end of 2011 amid allegations of gross negligence, mismanaging government funds and shady business practices. The OHA board tasked with overseeing Anderson was left intact.
Since Wilson’s termination, employees of the agency have reported that Anderson is now back at the housing authority conducting meetings and assisting with OHA business. OHA officials have not confirmed Anderson’s presence.
Wilson’s termination came just days after she reported alleged OHA board violations to HUD officials, the federal agency overseeing the quasi-governmental unit. The OHA board was scheduled to review and possibly enter into an employment contract with Wilson at its March 8 public meeting, although she had been acting in the executive director capacity for roughly 15 months already, but instead chose to terminate the executive director following a three-hour closed-door executive session.
OHA board commissioner Joe Robinson voted against the firing but was outvoted by board president Mary McKenna, commissioner Michael Combs, and commissioner Patricia Coppage. Combs made the motion to terminate Wilson’s employment with the agency and give the ousted executive director six months severance pay. Combs stated that Wilson would be given the chance to resign rather than be fired, but Wilson declined the offer.
“I haven’t done anything to need to resign,” Wilson told The Examiner after the board’s March 8 meeting. “I’ve never been fired from a job before, and I’ve never even had a negative evaluation. They’re going to do what they’re going to do, but that doesn’t make it right.”
Wilson attempted to invoke the OHA grievance process and appeal the board’s decision but counsel for the agency advised Wilson she would not be given a grievance hearing. Wilson’s attorney, Cade Bernsen of Beaumont, said denying his client her rights would not be tolerated, and litigation is now underway.
“This isn’t right,” Bernsen said. “(Wilson) was doing her duty to the position she was in, and some (people) apparently didn’t want her to do it. This is corrupt – plain and simple.”
In Wilson’s lawsuit against OHA, she claims relief under the Texas Whistleblower Act incorporated in the Texas Government Code stating that she was terminated due to “adverse personnel actions that were the result of (Wilson’s) reports of illegal conduct” since during her employment at OHA, Wilson had become aware that “specifically (OHA) Board Chairperson Mary McKenna and other board members were committing various illegal acts.”
Prior to her termination, Wilson penned a letter to OHA commissioners and board president McKenna, the Orange City Council, HUD Regional Director Dan Rodriguez, and HUD Office of the Inspector General Special Agent Rafael Galindo outlining what she has done to improve the OHA’s “troubled” status from the wreckage of Anderson’s time in charge. Other problems within the agency were more difficult to address, she said.
“I am deeply concerned with the direction the Orange City Housing Authority is currently heading,” Wilson wrote. “I believe the board should immediately employ a specialized audit firm to conduct a forensic audit and retain independent outside attorneys to advise the agency on HUD policies and procedures. I believe there may have been improper spending on behalf of the authority. I have voiced these concerns and reported them to HUD and OIG.” Wilson also alleged that OHA commissioners were skirting procurement procedure laws.
In response to The Examiner’s coverage of the ongoing turmoil at OHA, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa wrote to HUD Secretary Shaun Donavan requesting an inquiry into the troubled housing authority.
“It appears that OHA may be violating HUD regulations to hide questionable financial and administrative activities,” Grassley wrote. “As executive director of OHA, it is Ms. Wilson’s responsibility to bring possible mismanagement out in the open but, instead, she was fired for her efforts.
“During my three years of investigating questionable spending at public housing authorities, housing authorities have used a multitude of tactics to hide information from the public, and I’m concerned that HUD has done little to change these practices. If the OHA Board’s actions are any indication, HUD has once again failed to ensure transparency and accountability of taxpayer dollars.”
Grassley also asked HUD Secretary Donavon to acquire information on OHA including the names of all nonprofits affiliated with OHA, copies of OHA financial statements and audit findings, amounts of stimulus and disaster funding given to OHA since 2005, legal bills paid by OHA, and a list of employees and administrators with access to OHA credit cards and travel accommodations.