The Orange County Housing Authority began the process of terminating five employees early last week in response to findings from a personnel investigation into misconduct at the agency, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
Among the fired employees, sources said, were four Housing Authority field representatives who are responsible for inspections of tenants receiving federal rental subsidies, and a specialist who performs case management for those receiving rental assistance.
County Spokeswoman Jean Pasco would not respond to questions regarding the personnel investigation, including whether it has concluded or what, if any findings, were made.
Sources at the agency said the field representatives were caught doing personal business on the job, such as sleeping at home, exercising, and taking their children to school while on the clock, sometimes working as little as two hours in a nine-hour shift.
Pasco said all five individuals remain active employees. That could be because the county is required to provide employees with a 10-day notice before termination, or because they're appealing the terminations, which is their right under county policy
The actions of these Housing Authority workers were examined during an 18-month Orange County District Attorney’s investigation, which concluded in late 2013, sources confirmed.
No criminal charges were filed as a result of that probe, but investigators found evidence of misconduct and turned their findings over to the County Counsel’s office, which then hired outside risk-management consulting firm, Bickmore Risk Services, to launch an administrative personnel investigation in December 2013.
The housing authority came under scrutiny by DA investigators in 2012 after a group of whistleblowers had stepped forward to disclose alleged fraudulent behavior and misconduct by employees within the agency’s federally funded Housing Choice Voucher Program.
The program, also known as Section 8, provides rental subsidies to low-income residents. For years, the whistleblowers have alleged that the agency's Vietnamese-dominated hierarchy discriminates against Latino employees and knowingly allows Vietnamese residents to defraud the county's housing voucher program.
They have asserted that some Vietnamese Section 8 tenants have been underreporting their income and receiving housing assistance despite running lucrative businesses, owning luxury cars and designer purses, and living in homes with high-end appliances and electronics.
Documents obtained by Voice of OC show that the county responded to the allegations by having the its Equal Employment Opportunity office investigate the complaints in 2011, but couldn’t substantiate the whistleblowers’ claims of “discriminatory actions, hostile work environment, or recruitment violations.”
In a 2012 memo, Housing Authority Executive Director Karen Roper said an internal audit found nothing "that would substantiate the allegations related to fraud or discrimination.”
On November 12, 2013, after the DA investigation was completed, the county’s chief human resources officer, Steve Danley, sent an email to County CEO Michael B. Giancola, noting that the DA’s office “did not substantiate any criminal behavior but had enough poor performance issues to brief us on for possibly pursuing administratively through discipline process,” according to documents released to Voice of OC following a public records act request.
Citing confidentiality issues, the County Counsel’s office has not publicly released the DA’s investigation, but sources say the probe uncovered misconduct and malfeasance within the agency.
In March 2014, Orange County Performance Audit Director Philip Cheng also initiated a performance audit of the housing authority that recognized the Housing Authority “as a well-run organization,” and which was released publicly last fall. County supervisors, however, delayed approving the performance audit report, concerned that it didn’t present a complete picture of the personnel problems plaguing the housing authority.
An assessment of a four-month internal review conducted last year by the housing authority, its resulting “action plan recommendations,” as well as the agency’s internal communications with the Department of Housing & Urban Development indicate that disciplinary actions for misconduct focused on a few field representatives, not others, such as managers or supervisors whom the whistleblowers allege were involved in allowing the Section 8 tenants’ fraudulent behavior to continue.
Cynthia Elizalde, one of the original whistleblowers and a former Housing Authority employee who worked at the agency for 13 years, was fired last August from her job in what she alleges was an act of retaliation for her whistleblowing activities, and plans to file a civil lawsuit against the agency.
Reached last week regarding the latest developments, Elizalde expressed her disappointment with the results of the county’s investigations thus far.
“I would like to see that [District Attorney] investigation come to light and see exactly what it is that they found, and let it go public,” said Elizalde.
Elizalde said the whistleblowers’ original complaints focused on upper management and alleged mismanagement of federal funding.
“For [upper management] to be excluded in all of this or even if they allowed some of them to retire…they essentially let them get away with everything and they are sweeping this under the rug just as they have for many years,” said Elizalde.
Records from the Orange County Employees Retirement System confirm that two Housing Authority supervisors retired within about a week of each other last January. It is unclear whether the retirements were connected to the county’s personnel investigation, but sources within the agency say the retirements were unexpected.
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