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Near the end of his deposition in a whistleblower lawsuit, D.C. Housing Authority Senior Vice President Larry Williams apologizes.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t hear the question.”
Carla Brown, the attorney for former DCHA general counsel Chelsea Andrews, who is suing the agency after she was fired last year, repeats herself. Williams answers in basically the same way he had for every previous question: “I plead the Fifth.”
Williams’ virtual deposition, taken on Jan. 25, lasted 35 minutes. On the advice of his personal attorney, David Benowitz, Williams declined to answer any questions under the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self incrimination.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Hiram Puig-Lugo dismissed three of the five counts in Andrews’ lawsuit, including her claim under the Whistleblower Protection Act that she was fired for raising concerns about the purchase of KN95 masks in the early days of the pandemic. Puig-Lugo also recently denied Andrews’ motion for a reconsideration of the dismissal order.
The case is still ongoing, but Williams’ refusal to answer any questions so as not to incriminate himself is unrelated to Andrews’ lawsuit. Williams is named in a federal grand jury subpoena issued in November 2019 to the Housing Authority of the City of Freeport, a town of about 24,000 people in northern Illinois. Williams ran the agency from 2009 to 2017.
The subpoena asks for complete personnel files for former and current Freeport housing authority employees, including Williams. It also seeks specific financial records and banking information dating back to 2009, and other materials related to the Northern Illinois Community Connections, a “Workplace Development Initiative,” and the Peter Flynn Scholarship Fund and scholarship luncheon. The subpoena also asks for all records related to “any withdrawal and/or request for money from HUD’s Line of Credit Control System,” as well as the board meeting minutes dating back to 2009.
The subpoena is dated one month after HUD issued a critical assessment of the Freeport housing authority’s finances, management, governance, and physical conditions of its properties. The assessment, for example, determined the board and executive director “did not create and approve an Operating Budget before the start of the Authority’s fiscal year for multiple years.” The assessment also mentions a bank account containing $103,000 “that is not listed and accounted for on [the housing authority’s] accounting books.” And it says the Freeport housing authority could not provide HUD with enough information “to even begin determining the purpose of the account or the types of bills being paid from it.”
Williams’ role in the federal investigation is unclear, and he did not respond to LL’s email seeking comment. Benowitz, his lawyer, provided an emailed statement that says “Mr. Williams, upon the advice of counsel, and only as a precaution, asserted his constitutional right to silence. He did so in a deposition in a lawsuit that has nothing to do with Mr. Williams or his prior employment. Any attempt to imply that Mr. Williams’ assertion of his right to silence has any significance whatsoever is without merit.”
DCHA spokesperson Tony Robinson provided an emailed statement that says, in part, “Mr. Williams has not been charged with any wrongdoing and is not the subject of any federal investigations.”
Asked to clarify that claim, considering Williams’ name appears on a federal grand jury subpoena and the fact that he exercised his right against self incrimination, Robinson referred LL to Benowitz. Joseph Fitzpatrick, assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois, declined to comment. Freeport housing authority board meeting minutes indicate that the federal investigation was active as recently as November 2020.
The minutes indicate that the Freeport housing authority is “not a focus of the Federal investigation,” and says the agency is still gathering the requested documents. “It is anticipated that the second subpoena will be issued with a lot narrower request for additional information,” the minutes say.
Jana Volante Walshak, an attorney for the firm Fox Rothschild, which is representing the Freeport housing authority, did not immediately reply to LL’s email or return a phone call seeking more details. He will update this post if she responds.
Brown, Andrews’ attorney, asked Williams a variety of questions during the deposition. They ranged from Williams’ address and cell phone number, to his roles and responsibilities at DCHA, and his educational background.
She also asked about the nature of his relationship with DCHA Executive Director Tyrone Garrett and his former business transactions with Garrett. Williams, of course, did not answer those questions, but Garrett confirmed in his own deposition that he and Williams worked together “in the creation of a redevelopment opportunity” when Williams ran Freeport’s housing authority and Garrett was the executive director of a nonprofit called Maestro Community Development.
Garrett hired Williams shortly after he was selected as DCHA’s executive director in 2017. In his deposition, Garrett calls Williams a “close friend,” and says the two met during an industry conference.
Garrett said in his deposition that Williams was previously the subject of a formal DCHA complaint involving a procurement issue. The complaint, which ultimately found no wrongdoing according to Garrett, alleged an issue with Williams’ procurement for services of less than $6,000 from Taylor Made Solutions, a company based in Freeport owned by Andra Taylor. Taylor is a former Freeport housing authority employee, according to the Rockford Register Star, and used to work for the Workplace Development Institute. He is named along with Williams in grand jury subpoena, but his role in the investigation is also unclear. Taylor declined to comment.