DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Former D.C. Housing Authority general counsel Chelsea Andrews claims in a whistleblower lawsuit that DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett had her fired for questioning the procurement and authenticity of masks purchased to protect Housing Authority employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit, filed in D.C. Superior Court on July 29, accuses Garrett of neglecting the health and safety of DCHA employees and residents, violating the terms of her contract, and protecting his “friends,” who hold high ranking positions in DCHA. The complaint likens his actions to the traitorous rulers of ancient Rome.

Andrews’ lawsuit opens with the oft-used quote from Taylor Caldwell’s 1965 novel A Pillar of Iron: “A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within.”

Garrett and DCHA are the named defendants, but Andrews’ lawsuit identifies two other DCHA employees, Larry Williams and Bandele McQueen, in a debacle over alleged counterfeit masks. Both Williams and McQueen are close personal friends of Garrett, the lawsuit says, and hold high ranking positions in DCHA. McQueen, Garrett’s college roommate, according to the lawsuit, is the director’s senior advisor. Williams is the senior director for property management operations.

Garrett, McQueen, and Williams did not respond to emails seeking comment. Instead, DCHA VP of communications Jose Sousa sent over a statement via email:

“The DC Housing Authority denies the allegations made in the lawsuit. Contrary to the assertions in the Andrews Complaint, its actions were appropriate and complied with all policies and procedures at the time of the alleged incident.  The DC Housing Authority has made, and will continue to make, the health and safety of our residents and employees a priority during this pandemic. DCHA will vigorously defend itself in the appropriate forum.”

According to Andrews’ lawsuit, McQueen ordered KN95 masks for DCHA employees in April. Andrews later learned that McQueen purchased the masks through a “personal acquaintance,” and believes the purchase violated procurement rules. The lawsuit describes the invoice for the masks as “vague and did not reference the purchase of masks.”

The masks were intended for DCHA employees going into homes where they knew or suspected residents were infected with COVID-19.

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Andrews, who is also on DCHA’s “risk team,” asked on April 15 for a photo of the masks, and then received a phone call from Williams, “who was upset that she had requested a picture, and [was] defensive about the masks being questioned,” her lawsuit says.

By April 22, Williams emailed Andrews what he claimed was a certificate of authenticity for the masks issued by the Food and Drug Administration. The following day, Andrews learned in an email from the FDA that the agency does not issue certificates for medical devices and the manufacturer was not on the FDA’s approved list of vendors. In her lawsuit, Andrews asserts that the masks are “counterfeit” because they have ear loops rather than headbands, a potential indicator of phony masks listed on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

It was around this time that Garrett called Andrews to tell her that she’d “gone too far with the masks,” the lawsuit says. 

On May 1, Andrews says in her lawsuit that she had a video call with Williams and McQueen that did not go well. McQueen was “extremely upset and angry,” the lawsuit says, that “no one had spoken to him about this issue and that the masks were purchased from his personal acquaintance.”

Andrews later confided in fellow DCHA employees about the hostility she’d been feeling from Garrett, McQueen, and Williams.

Andrews declined to speak with LL on the record, and her legal team would not share documents referenced in her lawsuit, such as the certificate of authenticity, the invoice, and a photo of the masks.

Andrews claims in her lawsuit that after she began “questioning the source and authenticity [of the] masks, and the manner in which they were purchased, Mr. Garrett started acting in a hostile manner towards her, including not attending a briefing to discuss the illegal purchase, failing to call and/or return calls to Ms. Andrews, canceling meetings with Ms. Andrews, and overall acting in a curt and hostile manner towards Ms. Andrews when he was forced to interact with her.”

By May 13, Andrews had developed a set of standard operating procedures for ordering masks in the future, and on May 21 she was fired. Her termination memo stated that she could not work during the contractually required 60-day notice period, but would get paid for that time, as well as severance pay. The lawsuit claims she was not paid severance or during the 60-day notice period.

Andrews’ lawsuit says she was told she could describe her termination as a “resignation,” but Garrett later told his senior team that he decided not to renew her contract and she had been terminated. Her contract was up in September.

By foregoing the 60-day notice period, Andrews says DCHA terminated her benefits and disregarded the “pending legal or ethics opinions or investigations” she was handling.

Andrews worked for DCHA in various roles for the past eight years. Garrett promoted her to her most recent position, the No. 2 ranking official in the agency, in 2019.

Andrews, in her lawsuit, is asking for back pay and at least $12 million in damages, as well as her job back.