Medford housing director on leave
Decision comes amid allegations of mismanagement
Faced with calls for his resignation, Robert Covelle, the Medford Housing Authority director, took an unpaid two-week leave of absence Monday night, giving the agency’s board of commissioners time to decide whether he can continue to lead the agency amid state and federal investigations of alleged favoritism in hiring and contracting.
The board voted to place Covelle on leave from his $126,000-a-year job just days after Governor Deval Patrick demanded Covelle’s resignation following a federal audit that found widespread problems in the authority’s management.
The board also voted to place the authority’s second highest paid employee, John Lonergan, on indefinite leave while the Medford police investigate whether he improperly kept money from the sale of copper salvaged from public housing.
“The board felt it was important to take two weeks and look more closely at the federal audit and to figure out if Mr. Covelle is the right person for the agency,’’ said Sean Caron, who was sworn in as Governor Patrick’s new representative on the board barely an hour before the meeting. “I question his ability to do so.’’
Caron said Covelle’s unpaid leave of absence was intended to be “disciplinary in nature.’’
Covelle, who made brief, prepared remarks, said many of the agency’s problems predated his arrival in 2009, but said he would take responsibility for the lapses in procedure that led a federal Housing and Urban Development Department audit to question nearly $1.4 million paid for work on authority properties without proper contracts.
“As executive director, it’s my job to run the Medford Housing Authority, and even though I was not around for most of the deficiencies, the audit was done under my watch,’’ Covelle told an audience of housing authority residents and local officials, many of them supporters. “I take responsibility for my actions and the actions of my directors and supervisors.’’
However, Covelle’s lawyer said his client is guilty of no wrongdoing and agreed to the leave of absence to give the board time to reflect.
“All he’s asking is that they review the audit and his role in the agency in an orderly manner,’’ said Thomas Drechsler, a Boston lawyer. “I’m very comfortable with the fact he’s done nothing wrong and no one is even going to accuse him of doing any wrong.’’
The Medford Housing Authority has been under investigation since state housing officials raided agency headquarters last June to investigate reports that Covelle had improperly helped insiders get jobs and contracts, including his close friend and bocce teammate, as well as his son’s girlfriend. Since then, both the US Housing and Urban Development Department and Attorney General Martha Coakley have launched wide-ranging investigations.
Last week, Patrick called for Covelle’s immediate resignation from the agency, which oversees 1,600 units of housing for low-income people, saying the federal audit questioning $1.4 million in authority spending was “troubling news.’’
Patrick does not have direct power to fire Covelle, but he does appoint one member to the four-member board of commissioners. Last week, he replaced his gubernatorial appointee, Eugene McGillicuddy, who had supported Covelle, with Caron, currently the director of public policy at the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association.
Sylvia Jean Baumeister, the first board member to publicly signal she no longer supports Covelle, said the director’s leave of absence has thrown the agency into confusion. In an interview, she said it was difficult to predict if Covelle would return or if any charges would be brought against him.
“Time is needed right now for everything; everything is scattered,’’ she said. “We can’t take action until we know what’s going on.’’
A third board member, Michael A. Luongo, said he doubts whether Covelle was honest with the board during the months before the scathing federal audit was released.
“You could never get a straight answer from him,’’ Luongo said, recalling that Covelle told the commissioners they had nothing to worry about when some members asked about the contracts that are now the subject of the audit. HUD found potential violations of federal contracting rules in 21 of the 26 contracts it reviewed, though the authority has submitted a plan to address the deficiencies identified in the audit.
Covelle and Lonergan “know that they did some things that they shouldn’t have done, as far as the procurement thing, and they knew that,’’ said Luongo. “We didn’t. We thought things were being done properly. I think he wasn’t being truthful.’’
Replacing Covelle as interim executive director will be Michael Pacious, who served in the same role after former executive director John Greco retired in 2009.
Also yesterday, Lonergan, the authority’s operations director, was placed on an indefinite paid leave of absence, while Medford police investigate whether he improperly kept money from the sale of copper salvaged from a public housing project that was about to be demolished. He has acknowledged keeping $1,300 from the sale of salvaged copper for more than a year, but denies that he and others spent the money on themselves.
After Covelle’s leave of absence was announced, a top state housing official reaffirmed the governor’s demand for Covelle’s ouster.
“The Board’s action today is a good short-term step to help stabilize the Medford Housing Authority,’’ said Aaron Gornstein, the state’s top housing official, in a statement. “. . . We feel that the best long-term course of action is for the board to find new permanent leadership for the authority.’’
Sean P. Murphy and Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.