Citizen's curiosity leads to Housing Authority scandal

Turns out it can take just one curious person to keep government honest.

An audit of the Covington Housing Authority revealed $61,901.20 in questionable spending going back to 2013. And that's not all.

"We believe there is a high probability that misappropriations also occurred prior to January, 2013," reported auditors Yeager & Boyd.

The audit began after Newton County resident Barry McIntosh filed an Open Records Request for how the Authority was spending federal tax dollars. That was in September. Since then, property manager Erica Morris resigned, tried to return $26,000, and then her boss Greg Williams turned in his resignation after the audit slammed the lack of financial controls.

"I am responsible for it," Williams agreed.

McIntosh said a friend told him she had witnessed Housing Authority property manager Morris using gift cards on vacation, gift cards bought with tax dollars.

"I didn't want to just call up and say this person's doing something wrong," he explained. "I wanted to verify what I had been told."

So the local accountant filed an Open Records Request asking for Morris' spending. Just days later Morris would resign, offering to repay the Housing Authority with a $28,000 check. But according to auditors, that number may have been a little low.

The audit found $34,414.91 in questionable spending at Home Depot, including dozens and dozens of those pre-paid VISA gift cards we already reported.

In all, auditors questioned $61,901.20 because "one person was receiving the money, paying bills and reconciling the bank statements."

Erica Morris.

Neither Morris nor her attorney would respond to our questions.

"Nobody likes to pay taxes," stressed McIntosh. "And this is your tax dollars being wasted."

Was an earlier warning missed?

A state government supervisor told the FOX 5 I-Team she alerted executive director Williams when one of her employees witnessed Morris misusing those gift cards.

That was in May, 2016. But nothing happened until McIntosh's Open Records Request in September. Williams told us he did not remember such a specific earlier warning.

"My first knowledge of that this was occurring was when Erica confessed," Williams recounted. "I wish I had caught it but, do I think I should have caught it? I can't say that."

"Do you think you did anything criminally wrong?"

"Absolutely not," responded Williams. "I will stand by that 100 percent."

Williams and Morris helped provide affordable housing for more than 600 Covington residents. Both were well-loved by the people they served.

Authority board chairman Landis Stephens said he wished someone had come to them sooner.

"It's embarrassing for us to know from somebody from the outside," Stephens stressed. "This isn't somebody's store or somebody's shop. This is the people's money. We can't let them down."

The board already approved changes in how money is spent and collected. All checks now require two signatures. And the authority will no longer accept cash payments.

The Inspector General's office for Housing and Urban Development continues to investigate. If any criminal charges are filed, they will come from the U.S. Attorney's office.

A federal investigation that started not by police, but with one man's open records request.

"If you hear about something like this, don't just pass it off as oh, they'll catch it. It's not my job. It's not my responsibility," advised McIntosh. "You know, it wasn't mine, either."

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