For years, McLaughlin’s work for Murray gave him a powerful ally he could turn to for favors — such as helping his son obtain a state job — or advice, exchanging nearly 200 cellphone calls with Murray in 2010 and 2011.
In Easton, state housing officials proved to be deferential to Horner. They pointedly say it was up to the local board — not them — to fire Horner if they were unsatisfied. However, the Housing and Community Development Department officials also concede that the problems reflect a bigger issue.
“There is clearly a need to reform the public housing system to increase accountability at local housing authorities for executive directors and board members in order to protect taxpayer dollars and ensure that residents are getting the services they need,” it said in a statement.
Since the Chelsea controversy erupted, state auditor Suzanne Bump has intensified her review of housing authority finances, issuing several tough reports over the past year, including the audit of Easton that found 23 problems, ranging from unsanitary apartments to money missing from the laundry room.
But the watchdog agency is trying to overcome a troubling history: Bump’s predecessor, A. Joseph DeNucci,failed through repeated audits over a decade to detect enormous financial irregularities in Springfield under Asselin or in Chelsea under McLaughlin.
Critics say that part of the problem in Massachusetts is the huge number of housing authorities — 242 — each run like a separate fiefdom, with its own board and a chief often selected for political rather than managerial skills. Only the state of Texas has more housing authorities than Massachusetts, making state or federal oversight of each individual authority challenging.
The vast number of authorities also strains the leadership talent pool, requiring 1,210 board members statewide. Many board members provide little real oversight — the five-member Chelsea board, which resigned en masse in 2011, didn’t even know how much they were paying McLaughlin — while others show signs of serious dysfunction.
At the tiny Georgetown housing authority, the executive director and two board members nearly came to blows during a 2010 confrontation in director Diane Jodoin’s office over how checks were being handled. Jodoin and Bertha Foster, then 78, and Kay Ogden, then 61, ended up swapping charges of kidnapping, harassment, and assault and battery in Haverhill District Court.
“I thought they were going to kill me,” Jodoin testified, explaining that she used her hands to move Foster aside when the pair tried to block her from leaving.
“She loses her temper,” Foster countered in an interview. “She just shoved me out of the way and slapped away my hand. She has a temper; let’s face it.”
To defuse the crisis, state officials placed Jodoin on paid leave while they conducted a 17-week investigation that blamed both sides for being “frequently confrontational.” Jodoin was reinstated, though investigators faulted her for withholding key information from her board. The criminal charges were dropped.
But that didn’t end Georgetown’s dysfunction: In 2011, board chairwoman Martha Robertson, a close ally of Jodoin, had to resign after pleading guilty to her third operating under the influence offense.
Robertson came to meetings reeking of what smelled like alcohol, board member Ed Kiley said.
“She was kind of silly at meetings,” Kiley recalled. “She had a plastic cup and a straw. When you got up close, you could smell it.”
Robertson could not be reached for comment. Local police who reviewed meeting videotapes said they could reach no conclusion on Robertson’s condition.
But when Patrick, furious over McLaughlin’s conduct in Chelsea, attempted to increase the professionalism of housing authorities by reducing their numbers, the idea was rejected almost immediately by the panel Patrick assembled to consider housing reforms. Patrick argued that a smaller number of regional authorities would be more cost-effective and accountable.
“The interests are just too entrenched to make it happen,” said one commission participant, who asked not to be identified for fear of alienating others on the panel. “You would have a thousand commissioners calling their state reps and senators complaining bitterly.”
Patrick settled for recommending more training for board members and a proposal to set up a new agency that could provide administrative support for authorities with fewer than 200 units, including Georgetown.
The Patrick administration plans to file a comprehensive bill on housing authorities governance in January. Continued...