Brenda Donald at a Nov. 6, 2018 election victory party for Mayor Muriel Bowser at Franklin Hall Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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D.C. Housing Authority Director Brenda Donald received a $41,250 bonus this year—the maximum amount allowed under her contract and more than twice the amount of the highest bonus award paid to her executive staff last year. DCHA records indicate that Donald received the payment Jan. 6, 2023, but it’s unclear what criteria Donald met to earn the bonus.

DCHA Chief Operating Officer Rachel Molly Joseph initially declined to answer questions about the bonus payment or even confirm whether it occurred at all. “You will have to FOIA that information,” she wrote in an email to City Paper.

In response to a follow-up question, Joseph writes that “DCHA has no reason to refute that information. Director Donald earned the bonus she was entitled to receive based on her contract after an evaluation by the Board ad hoc performance review committee of her Board-approved performance plan.”

Joseph refused to explain the criteria used to evaluate Donald’s performance, provide meeting minutes for the ad hoc performance review committee, or provide Donald’s performance plan, saying via email: “The answers to all of these questions are personnel matters.”

Donald’s annual salary is $275,000, according to her contract signed in October 2021, which expires later this year. Under the contract, Donald is eligible for an annual performance bonus “of up to fifteen percent (15%) of her annual salary, based on her successful achievement of the Annual Goals, as determined by the [Board of Commissioners].”

The contract also stipulates that “the payout of the earned performance bonus shall be conditioned upon the financial capacity of the Agency to award the maximum performance bonus for that year.”

The timing of Donald’s bonus payment is notable. DCHA executive staff received bonus payments following a closed-door meeting in November 2022. The payments were authorized by Donald based on performance goals set earlier that year and ranged from about $3,000 to $20,000.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, with help from the D.C. Council, blew up the housing authority’s board of commissioners last December and installed a smaller “stability and reform” board filled only with her approved commissioners.

The controversial move to revamp the board was finalized Dec. 20. Some of the new commissioners were sworn in on Dec. 29 and 30, and Donald received her bonus payment on Jan. 6. But the new board’s first official meeting wasn’t until Jan. 25. Even if the new board was fully installed by Jan. 6, the bonus is for Donald’s performance over the previous year—work that some of the new board members would not have been familiar with.

Board Chair Raymond Skinner did not immediately respond to an email and voicemail. Skinner and Donald worked together in Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration.

In blowing up the old board of commissioners, Bowser and the Council eliminated Kenneth Council and Janet Parker, two members who had been elected to the board by public housing residents, as well as commissioners not appointed by Bowser, who were deeply critical of Donald and the agency, namely Bill Slover and Ann Hoffman.

It is unclear exactly what role Donald played in ousting her critics, but at one point during the debate over the new board, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson noted that Donald had considered resigning before her contract was up under the previous iteration of the board and scrutiny from DCHA’s internal auditor.

Donald’s bonus comes as DCHA is in the middle of responding to a scathing external audit from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that found failures in just about every aspect of the agency’s work, from public housing conditions and occupancy to vouchers, from contracting and procurement to public safety to finances. Donald has largely blamed the issues identified in the audit on her predecessors and has pledged to address them, noting that fixing deep, systemic issues in the agency takes time. But some former commissioners were critical of her work as well.

Three internal audits from DCHA’s Office of Audit and Compliance also identified illegal contracting and procurement practices. One audit of a contract (or lack thereof) with the firm Verbosity specifically accuses Donald of improperly authorizing sole source contracts. Donald has defended her actions on the contract and said the audit is full of “inaccuracies or leaps to conclusions.” Joseph, the COO, says the audit of the Verbosity contract, as well as a contract with the firm Xanthos, have been referred to the HUD inspector general, and DCHA is waiting for their findings and next steps. Joseph also says the a third internal audit, of a contract with the firm ThinkBox, is currently undergoing an “external review.”