Housing agency policy sought

Ethics commission questions workers' eligibility in program

Director defends practice

June 19, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

For a while, it seemed like a happy ending.

A clerk for the Howard County Housing Commission fell on hard times after her fiance died suddenly, and she could not afford to buy or rent a house in the county. Then, at the suggestion of her boss, she applied to a new program for first-time homebuyers. She was accepted into the program two years ago and began to get her life in order.

But six months ago, members of the Howard County Ethics Commission began questioning her participation.

They have concerns that housing employees and their relatives might be using inside information to gain admission into housing programs, while hundreds of other applicants sit on waiting lists. Some advocate barring housing employees from taking part in housing programs at all.

That upsets Leonard S. Vaughan, executive director of the Housing Commission and director of the Housing and Community Development Board. He denies the insinuations of favoritism and said he believes his employees have as much right to participate as anybody else.

"The sense that we should ban all employees from participating, I thought that was extremely unfair," Vaughan said. "What that would do to staff morale would be overwhelming."

For months, the Housing Commission and the Ethics Commission have been battling over the issue as they try to develop a written policy that both sides find acceptable.

About five housing employees participate in housing programs, Vaughan said. Neil Gaffney, deputy administrator of the county's housing office, has a daughter, a Howard County schoolteacher, who participates in one of the county's rental programs.

Vaughan said too many county employees are leaving the county as is, unable to afford homes or apartments here.

"We ask a lot of the county employees, in terms of serving the community, and I think it would be unfair to deny them benefits simply because they work here," he said. "We do need to make special precautions to make sure they are not taking unfair advantage."

Vaughan said that if Howard County barred housing employees from participating in housing programs, the county's rules would be stricter than federal guidelines and, as far as he knows, stricter than all other counties in the state. He said he checked with Baltimore City and Baltimore, Frederick and Montgomery counties, and none precludes housing employees from participating in housing programs.

"I don't have anything to hide, but it is an issue of grave importance to all the people who work there," he said.

At the January Housing Commission meeting, Gaffney said his daughter put her name on the housing waiting list before he became deputy director. Six months later, he said, after he had been promoted to deputy director, his daughter got off the waiting list.

"We followed all the rules," Gaffney said. "She was put on the waiting list. I stayed completely out of it. ... I know she followed all the procedures."

"I personally interviewed her," Vaughan told the Housing Commission in January. "To the best of my understanding, I thought we had complied with the policy."

Vaughan said almost everybody who applied for that rental housing program got in, in the order in which they applied. He said the Ethics Commission had concerns that housing employees and relatives, through insider knowledge, might get priority spots on the waiting list ahead of the average resident.

Vaughan has butted heads with the Ethics Commission on this issue before. In 1997, he approached the Housing Commission to get permission for his stepson to participate in a county home purchase program. The commission passed a resolution saying that could happen, he said, and submitted it to the Howard County Office of Law for review.

The Office of Law suggested that the issue be sent to the Ethics Commission, Vaughan said. The Ethics Commission ruled, in a private letter to Vaughan in June 1997, that his stepson could not participate.

Although confidential, Vaughan shared that with the Housing Commission. Until recently, it was the only written policy the county had.

The letter said that nobody related to Vaughan in his role as an administrator or executive director should participate in county housing programs, Vaughan told the Housing Commission in January.

The letter also said employees could take part as long as they did not participate in the approval process, use confidential information or use the "prestige of their office," Vaughan said.

At that time, the Ethics Commission also requested that Vaughan devise a written policy to guide future decisions about county employees using county housing.

"I had all the intentions of providing a policy, never did, and got called on it, so there was a policy sent out to you," Vaughan told the Housing Commission in January.

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