We are happy to let the smoke clear at the Lumberton Housing Authority before making any judgments on what may or may not have gone wrong there that has authorities clamping down on the spending of federal dollars.
What we know, we reported in an article on Tuesday on the front page of The Robesonian. Most of the information came from a strongly worded letter from Michael A. Williams, director of Public Housing for HUD’s Greensboro field office, to James Meacher, the now former director of the authority for decades, “about the possible improper expenditures of funds.”
In the letter, Williams said that the local agency’s “violation of conflict-of-interest requirements, lack of adequate controls over its disbursements, and failure to maintain an adequate inventory control system” would mean tighter controls on spending, and that the authority “must submit copies of all invoices, bills, receipts, etc., to this office prior to expending or obligating any LHA funds by check, cash or promissory note.” Williams said there were exceptions on some spending, including “utilities, payrolls and Housing Assistance Payments (that) don’t need to be submitted for approval,” but warned that the authority “must keep the documents on file for future review.”
No reading between the lines is needed to understand that this story has the potential to explode. An investigation, we are sure, is continuing.
This newspaper recognizes that affected officials, including members of the board, Meacher himself, and the authority’s lawyer, Kimberly Jones, have to be cautious about what they tell a reporter — and we were prepared to share that sentiment had we had the good fortune to speak with any of them by phone.
Instead, much of our time on Tuesday was wasted getting a stiff arm. We couldn’t reach Meacher, and multiple calls to Robert Delane Shaw, the former Lumberton councilman and chairman of the authority’s board, and Jones, were not returned. We did have more than one conversation with staff at the authority who seemed as annoyed with us as we were with them, and more than once the phone call ended with a click before the conversation did. These denials came from staff that are paid with public dollars and whose job exists solely for a public purpose.
What we were pursuing was basic information that by law the authority is bound to provide us. Simple stuff such as how long Meacher worked at the authority, how his departure is to be catalogued, his pay when he left, and how many housing developments and units the Lumberton Housing Authority oversees. That lack of cooperation only ensures that we will keep asking the questions until they are answered, and that will resume today.
Williams’ letter to the local authority strongly suggests a disregard by the local authority for the rule of law. This newspaper’s denial on Tuesday of generic information that by law we have a right to receive will only raise the public’s collective eyebrows of all matters regarding the Lumberton Housing Authority.