A county housing commissioner has suggested ending controversy over spending practices at the agency by allowing employees to take advantage of discounts on appliances bought for public housing projects.
While reviewing the county Housing Authority's procurement policy Thursday night, Commissioner Robert Scharf proposed an amendment to give all 43 employees the chance to buy stoves, refrigerators, lawn mowers and other appliances at a reduced rate. The agency purchases such items at substantial discounts through a supply system set up by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"I think it's an unacceptable practice for a few members of the staff to enjoy that discount," Scharf said during the monthly board meeting. "I think you should either open it up to all, or prohibit it."
Last month, federal housing officials confirmed they are investigating allegations of spending improprieties and potential misconduct at the agency. The probe centers on accusations that senior administrators signed purchase orders without proper authorization and used government discounts to buy home appliances without paying sales taxes.
Robert J. Brickley, who heads the Office of the Inspector Generalfor the mid-Atlantic region, said Friday that the inquiries are "still ongoing." He declined further comment.
Scharf and several otherhousing commissioners pointed out that similar discounts are often offered as employee perks in the private sector.
When Commissioner Tara Clifford, who works for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, questioned whether federal agencies provide such benefits, board chairman Charles St. Lawrence cited his own job as an example. St. Lawrence, an official with the U.S. Census Bureau, said he and his fellow employees can buy personal computers at reduced rates when the department orders them. He also said the county policeand fire departments offer employees such discounts.
"I think thestrongest argument for this is it opens the door," St. Lawrence said. "It brings a possible process out of the closet."
The seven-member board tabled Scharf's proposal after Larry A. Loyd, the agency's executive director, asked to check with HUD first. He said he was uncertain whether any regulations or ethics codes prohibit housing employees from using government discounts for personal purchases.
"Typically, I'm familiar with this as an item that would be discouraged," he said.
Jim Kelly, a spokesman for HUD's regional office in Baltimore, said allowing employees to take advantage of such discounts is "not a routine thing."
"They'd have to propose it to us, and we'd have to tell them whether it's proper or not," he said Friday. "We'd have to tell them whether it's permitted."
He said many smaller housing authorities participate in a HUD arrangement with vendors to purchase appliances and other items at a pre-arranged price. The system allows the agencies to avoid shopping for the lowest bid.
In otherbusiness Thursday night, the board endorsed a contract with HUD for a $249,980 drug-elimination grant. The housing authority was one of six in Maryland to receive grants to set up drug-prevention programs, mobilize residents of public housing projects and strengthen security.
The Annapolis housing authority also received a $250,000 grant to fight drug trafficking. The county agency plans to use the money toestablish prevention and treatment services, begin tenant patrols and install peepholes as a safety measure.