By Kevin Coughlin
The Morristown Housing Authority is part of a “federal crime investigation,” Executive Director Roy Rogers said Monday, prompting charges of a racially motivated “witch hunt” by two African American commissioners.
“I have observed some things I thought had happened that shouldn’t be happening. And I didn’t get the right answers from my staff, and I contacted HUD. And it’s evolved into a federal crime investigation,” Rogers said.
His remarks came during an explosive two-and-a-half-hour housing authority meeting that raised questions about past and present fiscal policies, and included the spectacle of one commissioner denouncing another who happens to be the mayor’s wife.
Rogers has been scrutinizing MHA practices since he accepted the $154,000 post in February. His discussions with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development have been ongoing “for several weeks, if not months,” he said.
He declined to divulge details of the probe, which HUD spokeswoman Marta Metelko neither would confirm nor deny on Tuesday.
Rogers dropped the bombshell to explain why he has urged the town council to delay replacing authority Chairman Michael Cherello, a holdover whose term expired on Sept. 5, 2015.
Some residents of public housing insist someone from their ranks must be appointed to the unpaid commission, to satisfy federal rules and ensure they have a voice.
“Nobody up there represents me, because they don’t know what I live with,” said resident Mary Booze.
It remains to be seen how the town council will respond, and how such an appointment might affect an investigation– or Rogers’ attempts to streamline operations of the housing authority, which oversees 470 units of public housing and 186 housing choice vouchers.
At Monday’s meeting Rogers questioned several practices, including travel by three commissioners to conferences in such places as Martha’s Vineyard; Washington DC; St. Petersburg, FL; San Francisco and Los Angeles over the last nine months.
Rogers said these trips cost $33,000 — money he asserted would be better spent on programs for public housing residents.
‘TAKING US BACK TO SLAVERY’
“You don’t want us to travel,” shot back Commissioner Dorothy Holman, one of three African Americans on the seven-member authority. “Point-blank, what it boils down to is, the blacks are going, they’re the only ones taking advantage of this, so let’s stop them.”
“To me, it’s like they’re taking us back to slavery. They don’t want us to learn,” Commissioner Vera White said during a break. Referring to Rogers, she added: “He’s not our boss. We’re his boss.”
Holman and White, former public housing residents who say a current resident must be named to the commission, said they are targets of a “witch hunt.”
White works as a technical assistant in the town’s building and construction department, and said the stress may force her to take time off. A lawyer told her “not to say too much” more about the situation, she said.
Commissioner Frank Vitolo, an attorney and Republican chairman for Morristown, backed Rogers on the travel issue.
“You can get all the training you want in New Jersey,” Vitolo told Holman, adding he would be “embarrassed” to travel out of state on the housing authority’s dime.
Commissioners Vitolo, Cherello, Jeanine Crippen and Mary Dougherty supported Rogers’ measure to end such travel reimbursements.
Holman voted against the change, while White and Commissioner Marion Sally, the authority’s retired executive director, abstained.
Voting along similar lines, the commissioners later extended Rogers’ contract for another year.
By that point in the evening, White had accused Rogers of deceiving commissioners by keeping a second job as director of the Harison housing authority. Rogers acknowledged holding that position on a part-time basis, and said he has not decided how to proceed.
Monday’s revelations did not stop there.
Rogers said he discovered that MHA has written off $104,000 in unpaid rents and associated federal subsidies dating to 2010.
At least three apartments remained vacant, for as long as two years, after tenants had died or gone to nursing homes, Rogers said.
He also came across stipends paid to residents to perform cleanup chores and manage access to the Marion Sally Residence Center in Manahan Village. Rogers said his staff will assume those functions.
Additionally, Rogers said he is scrutinizing staff procedures to determine why about one-fourth of maintenance tasks are performed as overtime.
But the most fiery part of the public session came when Holman said Dougherty should resign as a commissioner.
Dougherty, the town’s Democratic chairperson, is married to Mayor Tim Dougherty. The couple have supported numerous events involving “Dimples,” as they affectionately called Holman, in the Second Ward, a base of political support for the Mayor.
Holman’s daughter, Toshiba Foster, ran on Mayor Dougherty’s ticket and is vice president of the town council. Foster asked council colleagues to appoint a public housing resident to the housing authority last week, but was unsuccessful.
At Monday’s meeting, Holman claimed Mary Dougherty was reappointed by the council without first satisfying a federal requirement of completing five training courses within 18 months.
“The importance to me of this board is a joke,” Holman said of the housing authority. “You residents need to ask for Mary Dougherty to resign from your board because she’s not in compliance with HUD.”
Mary Dougherty did not respond to Holman’s comments during the meeting.
Asked about this during a break, she said she initially was appointed to an unexpired term. When reappointed to a full term, she completed the courses as prescribed, she said.
“There’s a lot of inaccurate information being thrown around,” Mary Dougherty said.