The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. officials are finally asking questions about the city’s housing authority. They need to ask themselves some questions, too.

The John Wilson Building, seen here in January 2020, houses the D.C. mayor and council offices. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Neil Albert’s sudden resignation as the chair of the D.C. Housing Authority board of commissioners last week ends nothing. If anything, it ought to mark the beginning of what should have begun months ago: an unconditional investigation of the agency, including the conduct of its board, procurement and contracting practices pursued by agency staff and the commissioners, and any irregularities in the expenditure of public funds by DCHA officials.

Albert wrote in his emailed resignation notice to the DCHA governing board that “it has been an honor to serve on this board.” Whether those feelings will be reciprocated by city taxpayers at the end of an in-depth DCHA probe is an altogether different matter. While accepting Albert’s resignation and thanking him for years of top-level service to the District, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) called for the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to investigate “matters raised in recent press accounts” that might have caused Albert to conclude the time had come to hat up and head for the door. (Attempts to reach Albert for comment for this column were unsuccessful.)

Also worth asking: Is Bowser’s concern about DHCA “matters” also too little and too late?

DCHA is not located in downtown Khartoum. Though created as an independent agency, DCHA is hardly sovereign from mayoral influence. What’s more, Bowser’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, John Falcicchio, is an ex officio member of DCHA’s board and an active participant in the board’s business. How could Albert-related DCHA “matters” come as a surprise to the Bowser administration?

Unfortunately for Albert, as well as for D.C. officials with oversight responsibility for DCHA, this agency will be in the spotlight well beyond the daily news cycle.

For that, District citizens can thank a series of stories by intrepid investigative journalist Jeffrey Anderson of the website District Dig, and accounts of housing authority dysfunction reported by Washington City Paper’s Mitch Ryals.

No doubt investigators with the D.C. Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (which I’m told has entered the picture) and quite possibly the Justice Department have plenty of ground to cover.

Clearly, District Dig’s revelations that Albert approved housing authority contracts worth millions of dollars for his companion Paola Moya opened the window to a host of other questions about DCHA. But investigators were already sniffing at the agency’s doors.

In Sept. 27 and Oct. 6 letters, D.C. Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas notified chairwoman Anita Bonds and members of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Housing and Executive Administration that the agency had serious problems. Lucas wrote in one instance that “the OIG received a confidential allegation that four former employees of a DCHA contractor engaged in a conspiracy to steal money intended for rental subsidies.” The IG’s letters were red-flag warnings, as well as a roundabout way of asking the council to request OIG involvement because, by statute, DCHA is not subject to OIG investigative authority. The gambit, approved by Bonds, got the IG’s nose under DCHA’s tent, and has provided the IG with the opportunity to delve into other possible procurement and contracting irregularities.

That little-known action was a major step forward by D.C. lawmakers whose traditional mode of oversight when confronted with monstrously incompetent government conduct, or legally or morally questionable behavior, is to adhere to the proverbial principle: “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” How else can DCHA, the D.C. Lottery, Medicaid contracting or the clearing of homeless encampments be explained?

But this time around, and under glaring spotlights, housing committee chair Bonds was spurred to ask the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to investigate whether there were ethical violations associated with DCHA’s contract with Albert’s companion’s firm, Moya Design Partners.

On Oct. 19, Bonds also asked the IG to investigate the DCHA contract awarded to Moya Design Partners.

Not to be outdone, three days later, the entire Housing committee membership, led by council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), asked the IG to expand the Bonds-sanctioned probe to include investigations of “conflicts of interest involving DCHA’s Board of Commissioners and agency staff, staff intimidation and abuse of power, and misuse of DCHA’s resources.” Allegations in the letter, signed also by council members Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) and Bonds (D-At Large), were sweeping: “a pattern of misconduct at DCHA” and “a troubling pattern of unethical and potentially criminal behavior at DCHA, including from agency leadership.”

This 11th-hour council vigilance is well and good. But D.C. residents have a right to ask each elected official now viewing DCHA with alarm, “what did you know about this troubled agency, and when did you know it?”

And expect to get straight answers.