DC Housing Authority headquarters
DC Housing Authority headquarters. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Franselene St. Jean was asking a lot of questions, and now she’s been removed from the DC Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.

St. Jean, who Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed in 2017 to fill the board seat reserved for a housing voucher recipient, was seeking updates and answers from DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett about several issues before DCHA, including what circumstances led DCHA’s former general counsel, Chelsea Andrews, to file a whistleblower lawsuit.

Andrews’ lawsuit claims Garrett illegally terminated her contract, which would have ended in September, after she raised questions about the purchase of potentially counterfeit masks. St. Jean says she and the rest of the board of commissioners first learned of Andrews’ lawsuit from City Paper‘s report on August 12.

“I was like ‘What just happened here? What is going on?’” she says. “It was so disrespectful. There was no kind of communication to the board of commissioners. We are the 11 bosses of Tyrone Garrett. There was no communication, no conversations about it.”

She says she asked DCHA board chairman Neil Albert to schedule an emergency meeting so commissioners could ask questions about the lawsuit, but Albert resisted. He did not return LL’s phone calls or emails. Instead, a quorum of DCHA commissioners agreed to schedule an emergency meeting for Tuesday, Aug. 25, when the board will likely go into closed session to discuss the case.

Then, early last Friday morning, St. Jean and Garrett exchanged emails regarding some of her questions, including about the community engagement efforts for the Rental Assistance Demonstration program and New Communities initiative. Garrett responded with updates. Around 8:30 a.m., St. Jean asked for an update on part of the redevelopment of the housing authority’s headquarters at 1133 North Capitol NE.

Some DCHA commissioners have pushed for the development to include units for people earning 0 to 30 percent of the area median income. It’s unclear whether the proposed deal with MRP Reality includes those deeply affordable units and how they will be filled. St. Jean says she’s been asking Garrett for an update to the board since January.

“As the housing choice voucher commissioner, that’s very important to me to make sure the folks with 0 to 30 AMI vouchers are the first to come in,” she says. “And it’s process, so they have to write that out and explain it.”

Within an hour or so of making that request, St. Jean says she got a call from Steven Walker, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments. Walker told her that she would be removed because she no longer receives housing choice voucher payments, which is a requirement for the seat she occupied. Her removal was effective immediately, Walker told her.

But, St. Jean says, she hasn’t received voucher payments for the past two years. “Everybody in the Housing Authority knew that. It wasn’t like it just happened,” she says.

“It was just strange,” she says. “I called for the emergency board meeting, I asked additional questions, and now I won’t be at the Tuesday meeting, and I won’t be at the Wednesday meeting.”

Reached by phone Sunday evening, Walker referred LL’s questions to the mayor’s press office. A spokesperson did not return LL’s call or email. 

St. Jean, a Navy veteran who works as a surgical technician, purchased her own home with the help of DCHA’s homeownership assistance program. She says she recently graduated from nursing school and will take the nursing board examination next month. St. Jean says she wants to continue working in the affordable housing industry in some capacity, with a special focus on informing veterans about their housing rights.

During a phone conversation over the weekend, St. Jean listed her questions for Garrett about the whistleblower lawsuit. LL would like to know the answers as well:

Did the Housing Authority purchase counterfeit masks?

Did the Housing Authority provide those masks to employees?

Did the Housing Authority train those employees to use the masks properly?

Did the Housing Authority follow proper procurement protocol?

Can we see a copy of the FDA document referenced in the complaint? (Andrews claims in her lawsuit that Larry Williams, senior director for property management operations, provided a fraudulent document from the FDA as proof of the masks’ authenticity.)

Did the Housing Authority conduct an internal investigation into Williams and senior advisor Bandele McQueen, both of whom are described in the lawsuit as close friends of Garrett and who Andrews says reacted with hostility toward her questions about the masks?

What was the basis for Andrews’ termination?

Why would the Housing Authority terminate its general counsel and risk officer during a pandemic?

Did the Housing Authority fail to pay Andrews according to the terms in her contract after she was terminated, as she claims in her lawsuit?

Can we see the invoice for the masks? (In her lawsuit, Andrews describes the invoice for the masks as “vague and did not reference the purchase of masks.”)

Can we see the standard operating procedures for purchasing masks that Andrews drafted right before she was dismissed?