Officials of P.I. Properties Inc. spent more than $30,000 that was intended for the dilapidated Clifton Terrace apartment complex on their private business ventures, their homes or themselves during the mid-1970s, the firm's former bookkeeper testified yesterday.
In nearly four hours of testimony, Zellene Laney, the former bookkeeper, recounted more than two dozen occasions between late 1975 and mid-1977 when Mary Treadwell, P.I. Properties' president, Robert E. Lee, the firm's general manager, and Joan M. Booth, Treadwell's sister and Clifton Terrace's project manager, directed her to write checks out of the Clifton Terrace operating account for expenses elsewhere.
The 37-year-old Laney, one of the government's chief witnesses against Treadwell at her conspiracy and fraud trial, also testified that for six to eight weekends, starting on Thanksgiving weekend in 1976, she and the three P.I. Properties officials met at Clifton Terrace and systematically "altered the invoices for the expenditures to show they were Clifton Terrace expenses."
This was done, she testified, to hide the real use of the money from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development auditors, who by late 1976 had begun to question the high expenses that P.I. Properties was incurring in the operation of Clifton Terrace, which it had bought from HUD.
When asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney William D. Pease what the group did with the original expense records, Laney matter-of-factly replied, "We destroyed them."
The bookkeeper, a woman with the drawl of her home state of North Carolina, said that accountant Ronald S. Williams, who was hired by Treadwell to do a separate audit of P.I. Properties' books and later married her, watched the activities, but did not participate.
"He told us somebody was going to go to jail," Laney recalled.
To this point, no one has been sent to jail in the case, although both Lee and Booth face up to 10 years' imprisonment after pleading guilty to conspiracy and other charges. Both may be called as witnesses against Treadwell, who is accused of using P.I. Properties to defraud the federal government and Clifton Terrace's low-income tenants of thousands of dollars.
While examining more than 75 checks, internal P.I. Properties records and reports submitted to HUD, Laney laconically recounted how the Clifton Terrace account was regularly tapped for a wide range of expenses elsewhere.
Laney said that she, too, benefited from the largesse, receiving a credenza that had been purchased with Clifton Terrace money.
The bookkeeper said that Treadwell, Lee and Booth all could give her authorization to write the checks, but she testified that most often it was Lee and Booth. Nonetheless, Laney said that several of the expenditures directly benefited Treadwell's private ventures, particularly her Kiosk advertising agency on Connecticut Avenue NW and the Buena Vista apartments in Southeast Washington, which were owned by another Treadwell firm, Youth Pride Economic Enterprises.
Laney testified that more than $1,100 in Clifton Terrace money was used to paint and carpet the advertising agency's offices. In addition, she said that nearly $9,000 of the money for Clifton Terrace was used to supply fuel oil to the Buena Vista complex.
Laney said that while money was spent on fuel oil for the Buena Vista, Clifton Terrace residents occasionally went without heat because that complex's fuel bills had not been paid.
The bookkeeper said that Booth used the Clifton Terrace account to pay for $1,000 worth of iron bars for her Northeast Washington home and a $1,145 legal bill she owed to former HUD Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris for representing her in a child-custody case.
But Laney said that Treadwell "was really upset" about the payment of the legal fees "because Mrs. Harris worked for HUD and it would have embarrassed her being being paid out of Clifton Terrace funds." Laney said Booth blamed her for writing the check and then reimbursed the account.
At various times, Lee withdrew $5,500 in cash from the Clifton Terrace accounts, had $618 worth of electrical work done at his home and bought a $720 refrigerator, Laney testified.