Spending on cosmetics, alleged sexual harassment draw scrutiny at Hickory housing agency

Hickory Housing Authority Executive Director Alanda Richardson said her agency hasn’t improperly spent money on parties and trips.
Hickory Housing Authority Executive Director Alanda Richardson said her agency hasn’t improperly spent money on parties and trips.

Three former employees charge that a Hickory Housing Authority administrator sexually harassed tenants and another official misused taxpayer money to pay for personal gifts and trips to conferences.

The accusations are detailed in a 10-page letter sent to federal officials in June and in other documents obtained by the Observer.

Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright told the Observer this week that he will investigate the employees’ complaints. Wright has called for leaders from the Hickory Housing Authority to attend a public meeting Wednesday to answer questions.

“If this happened, it is outrageous,” Wright said. “I need to get an answer to this.”

The complaint letter addressed to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development portrays a dysfunctional organization rife with unethical and unprofessional conduct.

Multiple female tenants reported that a male manager offered to pay their rent in exchange for sexual favors, the former administrators wrote in the letter.

Craig Hensel, a Greensboro attorney who plans to file a lawsuit on behalf of the alleged victims, said at least six women have come forward and accused Housing Authority employees of sexual harassment, including the manager and staffers.

This happened to women who had nowhere else to turn. They are angry and frustrated.

Craig Hensel, attorney for the alleged victims of harassment

In some cases, Hensel said, the manager propositioned tenants who were behind on rent and offered to waive late fees if they gave money to him directly instead of using the normal procedures to make payments.

“This happened to women who had nowhere else to turn,” Hensel said. “They are angry and frustrated.”

Former employees also allege that Housing Authority Executive Director Alanda Richardson used public money to provide administrators and other officials with iPads, cosmetics and other perks.

In September 2014, they said, Richardson ordered female staffers to attend a two-hour facial and makeup session with her friend, who was a Mary Kay cosmetics consultant. After the presentation, Richardson announced the employees could spend $150 each on makeup and the agency would pay the costs.

Richardson told the Observer this week that she paid for the cosmetics with public money. She said the purchases helped boost morale in a workplace that does not celebrate birthdays or stage holiday parties.

The agency has 15 employees. Since 2013, it has paid to send administrators and others on training trips nationwide, including to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; Hilton Head Island, S.C.; Orlando, Fla.; and Las Vegas.

Documents show the agency spent about $8,000 to send the agency’s board of commissioners and Richardson to a Georgia wine and golf resort in January 2014. Board members produced the agency’s strategic plan during the retreat and needed to get away to focus, Richardson said, defending the expense.

These are not luxury trips. They are not just for entertainment.

Alanda Richardson, Housing Authority’s executive director

Richardson said staffers and commissioners attended conferences to bolster training that federal officials recommended. The trips also provided networking and other professional development opportunities for employees.

“These are not luxury trips,” Richardson said. “They are not just for entertainment.”

Agency Commissioner Edward Fuller said he did not take trips to conferences but believes they were appropriate.

“Our executive director is above reproach when it comes to doing anything unlawful,” Fuller said. “She’s not going to take that chance.”

Fuller said the agency acted swiftly when officials learned that a male manager had an inappropriate relationship with a female tenant. Agency commissioners were told the two people had dated, Fuller said. He said the board asked Richardson to fire the employee.

“With these allegations, I don’t think you’re going to find anything,” Fuller said.

Troubled history

Located about 60 miles northwest of Charlotte, Hickory has little public housing.

The Housing Authority uses a $5 million annual budget to manage roughly 300 units and provide services for the poor.

But the agency has come under scrutiny from federal regulators in the past.

Acting on a complaint from a former Hickory Housing Authority commissioner, HUD investigators in 2012 cited the organization for mismanaging more than $500,000 and ordered the money repaid.

An audit revealed the Housing Authority had awarded a maintenance contract to a business owned by a commissioner’s brother, a conflict of interest. It also found the agency had awarded a landscaping contract to Richardson’s estranged husband.

Federal officials concluded that agency leaders failed to put in place adequate controls and recommended more training.

HUD provides much of the money and makes rules for public housing agencies. Curtis Davis, field director for HUD’s Greensboro office, said he was unaware of the new allegations.

In Hickory, the mayor has the authority to appoint members to the Housing Authority’s board of commissioners. The board oversees the executive director and helps set policy.

Mayor Wright has been criticized for failing to replace longtime board members after the HUD audit revealed problems. Critics said some commissioners had grown too loyal to Richardson, who has been executive director for 17 years.

Turning a blind eye?

Federal fair housing law prohibits sexual harassment.

But former employees wrote to federal officials that Richardson did not take immediate action against the manager who harassed tenants. Richardson questioned the veracity of the tenants’ accounts, according to the letter.

Hensel, the Greensboro attorney, represented 16 women in a similar case in Scotland County, where two public housing administrators were accused of offering subsidized housing vouchers in exchange for sex acts.

In July, Southeastern Community and Family Services Inc. and the accused men agreed to pay more than $2.7 million in damages.

In Hickory, Hensel has distributed 600 mailings to current and former tenants. The mailing said the Housing Authority may have known about the harassment but did not move quickly to stop it.

In one case, Hensel said, the alleged perpetrator had been in a consensual relationship with a tenant. But when the woman tried to end the relationship, he threatened to have her evicted and to report her to child protective services, Hensel said.

Richardson said employment privacy rules prevent her from publicly discussing the accusations. She said she has no tolerance for sexual harassment.

Defending her record

Richardson defends her track record in leading the Housing Authority. Five times in the last 17 years, she said, HUD has recognized the agency as a high performer, including in 2014. The Housing Authority offers college scholarships, parenting classes and a program that helps tenants become homeowners, Richardson said.

Richardson said paying to send employees to conferences shows how she treats them well and is willing to invest in their growth.

“My philosophy is to explore regional and national (conferences) so they can expand, look outside the box and gather new ideas,” Richardson said. “There is no misspending on conferences.”

But the complaint letter sent to HUD describes Richardson bullying employees and creating a “culture of fear and intimidation.” The former employees said that the board of commissioners provides weak supervision, calling it a “rubber stamp” for Richardson’s ideas.

“We feel strongly that Hickory Housing Authority needs a thorough investigation,” they wrote.

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027