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Little Rock housing authority’s board drafted letter of reprimand for executive director, signaling new friction

Unsigned letter signals renewed friction by Joseph Flaherty | May 19, 2023 at 3:47 a.m.
Louis Jackson, a commissioner on the Metropolitan Housing Alliance board, listens to a presentation during a meeting in Little Rock on Thursday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The Little Rock public housing authority's board of commissioners recently circulated a draft letter of reprimand addressed to Executive Director Ericka Benedicto that claimed she had failed to communicate effectively with the board and was insubordinate, among other shortcomings.

Although it was never formally issued, the letter is the latest sign of friction between the housing authority's board members and the top employee they oversee. The pattern of disputes has played out as a series of executive directors have come and gone in recent years.

The last episode of upheaval occurred in 2021, when the board voted to fire then-Executive Director Nadine Jarmon.

Benedicto was named interim executive director of the authority, known as the Metropolitan Housing Alliance, in September 2021. The board later tapped her to lead the agency on a permanent basis.

During an April 20 meeting, commissioners held a lengthy executive session, but when they returned to open session, Chairperson Lee Lindsey reported no decision had been made.

Likewise, commissioners entered executive session at a board meeting Thursday. When they returned, Lindsey reported that no decision was made, and the meeting was adjourned.

When approached at the conclusion of the meeting Thursday, Benedicto initially referred a reporter to Lindsey. Asked about the draft letter of reprimand, Lindsey declined to comment, calling it a personnel issue.

Benedicto did not respond to a request for comment via email later on Thursday regarding the unsigned letter.

The letter, dated April 27, listed four bullet points under the label of "Performance Issues" and four others under "Behavior/Relationship with Board of Commissioners."

The performance issues listed included "Delays in addressing the issues of Finance in the agency" and "Delays in addressing the operational issues of the agency especially in the HCV [housing choice voucher program]."

Under "Behavior/Relationship with Board of Commissioners," the letter cited a "Failure to communicate effectively with the Board of Commissioners" and "Insubordinate behavior/responses."

The letter contained more bullet points labeled as an improvement plan that instructed Benedicto to return emails and telephone communications within eight hours and provide the board with a plan "to address the on-going financial needs of the agency within 30 days," among other mandates.

"The Board is the final authority with fiduciary responsibility as well as being responsible for keeping the agency viable," the letter said. "The definition of directive is receiving authoritative instruction. The Board over the last several months has given you authoritative instructions with specific time frames only to have them ignored without reasonable explanation."

Spaces for the signatures of Lindsey as well as commissioner Leta Anthony, whom the letter lists as "Employment Committee Chairman," were blank.

At one point during Thursday's board meeting, Anthony disclosed that two investigators from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Inspector General were in Little Rock for three days a couple of weeks ago for an investigation that included interviews with her and former board Chair Kenyon Lowe Sr.

When Anthony asked whether anyone else in the organization was interviewed during that visit, Benedicto indicated she did not know anything about it.

Anthony said her interview with the investigators lasted about 21/2 hours. She said they seemed more interested in the spending of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money than anything else.

When reached by phone Thursday, Lowe confirmed he spoke with investigators over the phone around May 1.

Lowe said they were gathering data about a complaint the housing authority's board filed with the Office of Inspector General regarding CARES Act spending under Jarmon.

The board felt that the CARES Act money could have been put to better use on items like rental assistance and citizen services, particularly for the elderly, Lowe said.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported last year that Lowe filed a complaint with the Office of Inspector General against Jarmon in April 2022 that claimed financial misconduct on the part of the former executive director, including the misuse of CARES Act funds.

After serving in an interim capacity following the previous executive director's resignation in mid-2020, Jarmon officially became executive director in April 2021.

The housing authority's board voted to fire her on Aug. 25, 2021, after a suspension. Her termination came roughly two months after Jarmon provided to HUD's local field office and the office of the Little Rock mayor a memo that contained allegations of misconduct on the part of board members.

She later sued the housing authority over her termination; the case is still pending in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. She was hired to lead the Hot Springs Housing Authority in January.

Meanwhile, an April 2022 report, obtained by the Arkansas Advocate from HUD's Departmental Enforcement Center, found close to $259,000 of Metropolitan Housing Alliance expenses were "unallowable" and another $11,355 were "questionable."

The Departmental Enforcement Center's review covered the period from Jan. 1, 2019, through June 30, 2021.

Benedicto was named interim executive director in September 2021. The housing authority's board made her position permanent in January 2022.

The media relations office for HUD's Office of Inspector General did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment Thursday.

Also during the meeting Thursday, Benedicto said officials were working to provide documentation to federal officials for what she said was initially an HUD review of the housing choice voucher program under what is known as Section 8.

However, Benedicto said that based on her understanding, the review was now "broader than Section 8 -- it's more operational and so they will look at programs and processes beyond that department."

The housing authority's staff must upload a lot of documentation to help the HUD officials prepare for their review, Benedicto said.

  photo  Lee Lindsey (left), chair of the Metropolitan Housing Alliance board of commissioners, talks with Ericka Benedicto, the agency’s executive director, during a meeting in Little Rock on Thursday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Print Headline: LR housing board drafts reprimand for director


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