A history of Freeport Housing board woes

The Freeport Housing Authority building at 3 Buffalo

The Freeport Housing Authority building at 3 Buffalo Ave. (Sept. 7, 2012) (Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin)

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In dark basements under two Freeport public housing projects, a quarter-million taxpayer dollars' worth of unused windows have collected dust for two years.

Freeport Housing Authority commissioners and attorneys say the windows can't be installed because they weren't designed to work with child safety guards. The windows can't be returned because they were custom made, and the best option now might be to sell the windows for scrap, they said.

The windows are an expensive example of problems with the Freeport Housing Authority, where local officials manage nearly $5 million in federal funds each year to provide public housing and rental vouchers for more than 500 of the village's low-income residents.

The agency has operated without an executive director for the better part of 20 months while two people have largely handled the role: board chairwoman Annette Wright, whom federal officials would not allow to take the job herself, and housing authority counsel Angelyn Johnson, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to a violation and paid $10,000 in restitution following mortgage fraud charges in Queens.

The authority's board finally hired a new executive director in July 2012, then fired her a month later.

The leadership vacuum dates to February 2011, when longtime executive director Edward Lancaster's contract expired and wasn't extended by the Freeport Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.

Lancaster responded with a lawsuit seeking $73,000 he said he was owed in unpaid benefits, legal fees and other expenses. The authority recently settled the suit by paying Lancaster $8,000, despite its allegations that he had been stealing from the agency for years. Authority attorneys said in interviews it was cheaper to pay him to settle rather than continue litigation.

Lancaster faced similar accusations when he was charged with taking bribes by the Nassau County district attorney's office in 2000, three years after he started working for Freeport. Lancaster ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor official misconduct, and was placed on probation and ordered to pay more than $6,400 in restitution.

However, Lancaster remained executive director for another decade.

Two other area housing agencies that serve low-income residents have drawn the attention of law enforcement this year.

In July, the U.S. attorney's office and the Department of Housing and Urban Development inspector general's office announced the arrest of the former fiscal director of the Nassau County Office of Housing and Community Development for allegedly stealing more than $120,000 from the agency. In February, the Nassau County district attorney's office charged a Village of Hempstead Housing Authority employee with stealing more than $10,000 in housing funds.

Though they haven't alleged such wrongdoing in Freeport, HUD officials have expressed concerns about the housing authority since Lancaster's departure. HUD requested financial records from the authority in October 2011, and the department's assessors began a separate review of the authority in July to identify and fix issues with the agency's operations.

Freeport Mayor Andrew Hardwick, who appoints five of the authority's seven board members, said HUD officials have asked him to take on more of a leadership role. Hardwick said in an interview that problems at the authority were the fault of his predecessor's administration and that he favored a forensic audit of the entire village government.

"There's a long trend of people having their way with the public finances," the mayor said of the village's prior administration, which Hardwick has repeatedly accused of malfeasance since taking office in 2009.

William Glacken, the former mayor, dismissed Hardwick's allegations as a "political smoke-screen for his own ineptitude."

"He's responsible for whatever has happened in the last 3 1/2 years, and he needs to wake up to the fact he's been in charge for the last 3 1/2 years," Glacken said.

Hardwick said he's tried over the last year to be more involved with the authority and appoint people he trusts to the board.

But Dorothy Jackson, one of two housing authority board members who lives in public housing and is elected by other residents, said even though Hardwick knows about the authority's recent turmoil, he hasn't done enough to fix it.

"I think he knows a heck of a lot," Jackson said. "But knowing things and doing something are different."

Questions about past

The Freeport Housing Authority is one of more than 30 agencies on Long Island that provide shelter to low-income residents through public housing or Section 8, programs HUD funds. A local board of seven commissioners and an executive director use those funds to manage Freeport's 351 public housing units and distribute 211 Section 8 vouchers to help pay rent for qualified residents.

In February 1998, the board hired Lancaster to be executive director. Three years later, the Nassau County district attorney's office charged Lancaster with numerous offenses, including a felony for accepting bribes.

According to the DA's allegations, Lancaster accepted carpeting in his home in exchange for awarding Freeport work to a contractor. In the same case, the DA's office alleged similar wrongdoing at his previous job running the North Hempstead Housing Authority.

Lancaster pleaded guilty in 2001 to official misconduct, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to 3 years of probation. Records show Lancaster had to pay $4,739 in restitution to North Hempstead and $1,675 to Freeport.

Glacken, who was the Freeport mayor at the time, said the housing authority's then-commissioners determined that Lancaster could keep his job as executive director.

"It was their decision, not my decision," Glacken said.

HUD did not remove Lancaster because housing authorities are established by state law and governed by local boards, HUD spokesman Adam Glantz said in an email.

"HUD has no authority to fire an executive director or recommend that the executive director be fired," Glantz wrote.

The lawsuit

A decade after his guilty plea, Lancaster sued the Freeport Housing Authority, its board and an affiliated nonprofit -- the Nautilus Development Corp. -- in State Supreme Court after Freeport board members declined to renew his contract at the end of January 2011.

The suit asked for $73,000 for accrued sick leave, unused personal and vacation days, punitive damages, reimbursement for expenses and legal fees. Lancaster also alleged that he wasn't compensated for some work he did for Nautilus, a nonprofit the authority incorporated in 1999. In his complaint, Lancaster said he was an employee of both organizations.

In counterclaims, the housing authority sought more than $1.3 million from Lancaster and accused him of engaging in "a scheme to systematically defraud the FHA and convert FHA assets" for personal gain.

The authority also alleged it was a conflict of interest for Lancaster to work as the authority's executive director, a full-time job, while "purporting to be employed in a full-time capacity by Defendant Nautilus Development Corp." and draw pay from both organizations, according to the counterclaims.

Annual tax filings reviewed by Newsday show that from 2006 through 2009, Lancaster received about $40,000 from the nonprofit. His annual salary from the authority was more than $110,000.

Housing authority attorneys and Wright, the board chairwoman, said they don't know the total amount Lancaster took from the authority.

Commissioner Jane Dugan and attorney Johnson provided Newsday with copies of checks that they allege show Lancaster used authority funds to pay family members and for work on his home. The authority has so far declined to report Lancaster to law enforcement. Authority attorneys said they want to gather more evidence first.

In court filings, Lancaster's attorney Scott Hirsch denied that his client stole from the authority, calling such accusations "spurious, self-serving and baseless."

"[I]f the defendants had any proof whatsoever that Mr. Lancaster acted inappropriately, they certainly would have or could have taken action against him over the past year since his contract terminated," Hirsch wrote in a September 2011 filing.

Lancaster did not return calls seeking comment. Hirsch declined to comment.

Johnson said the agency is dealing with more than just the alleged misconduct under Lancaster's tenure, but also his mismanagement.

In 2010, the authority set out to replace the windows in all 100 units at the Moxey A. Rigby housing project. Johnson provided accounting records showing the authority spent about $255,000 on windows and $85,000 on labor and other project costs.

Workers started installing the new windows in fall 2010, but Johnson said the project stalled when they discovered that child safety guards couldn't fit the windows properly.

The windows have been stored in basements under Moxey A. Rigby and another authority building ever since.

The attorney

Housing authority board members told Newsday they were unaware until recently that Johnson, whom they hired after Lancaster left, faced criminal charges in 2007.

An Internet search of Angelyn Johnson's name would have led board members to a February 2007 news release from Queens District Attorney Richard Brown announcing charges against Johnson and five others in an alleged scheme to steal a woman's house "right from under her nose."

The mortgage broker in the case pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny, a felony. Another attorney pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal facilitation.

Johnson, who had faced multiple felony charges, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a violation. Court records show Johnson received a one-year conditional discharge, and she had to pay $10,000 in restitution.

Johnson said in an interview that she had nothing to do with the fraud. Her name was forged on documents and she never attended the meetings detailed in the allegations, she said.

Johnson said she pleaded guilty to the violation because it was the easiest way to resolve the case and not affect her law license.

A spokesman for the Queens district attorney's office said he couldn't comment because Johnson's case is sealed.

Hardwick said he's not concerned about Johnson's case.

"Everyone has something in their past," Hardwick said. "I trust her judgment."

The new bosses

Johnson and Wright said they have been serving as de-facto administrators since Lancaster left. One of their responsibilities has been to find a new executive director.

But an October 2011 letter from Luigi D'Ancona, public housing director for HUD's New York Office of Public Housing, said the authority instead asked HUD to allow Wright to take the executive director job herself.

Board members like Wright are barred from assuming such executive jobs without a waiver from HUD. In the letter, D'Ancona denied Wright's waiver and noted there was no evidence the authority did enough to find qualified candidates.

The board hired Patricia Croslan in July to be the executive director. They fired her a month later.

Commissioner Dugan said Croslan did not get along with some board members.

"We were her bosses, and she came in and thought she was going to be our boss," Dugan said.

Croslan said in an interview that she questioned the stewardship of the agency during her brief time there, along with missing records and exorbitant legal bills.

Commissioner Jackson said Croslan was fired because Wright "wants the job herself." Wright said in an interview that it wasn't her idea to seek the position and that she does not want the job.

Croslan was dismissed because "she just wasn't suitable for the position," Wright said. "I don't want to say too much right now."

In D'Ancona's letter about the executive director search, he also asked for records of all authority contracts, board meeting minutes and purchases from December 2010 to September 2011. A HUD spokesman declined to explain the reason for the request.

Newsday requested similar financial records earlier this year in an attempt to track how the agency has spent taxpayer dollars. Johnson provided select documents showing operations under Lancaster. She and Wright have refused to release public records covering the current leadership, as they are required under the state's Freedom of Information Law.

With Patrick Whittle

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