At-Large Councilmember Robert White
At-Large Councilmember Robert White Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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One thing is certain: At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds never held a press conference quite like the one At-Large Councilmember Robert White called Thursday as the new chair of the Council’s housing committee. Whether or not that press conference will actually achieve anything is another matter entirely.

White called the media event an “emergency” when selling it to reporters ahead of time, but he devoted most of his brief remarks to going over things that have already been made public. Specifically, he highlighted a series of D.C. Housing Authority audits detailing allegations of contract steering, poor management practices, and outright corruption within the troubled agency, releasing them to the public and noting that many are now subject of further investigations. He also said that he personally received accusations of “serious criminal behavior” from a whistleblower last week and forwarded that information to “law enforcement,” but he wouldn’t go into further detail.

White also accused DCHA leadership of intransigence and instilling a culture that “failed to prioritize and elevate serious issues, but instead [tried] to quash them quietly.” That bit of this morning’s meeting on the steps of the Wilson Building was particularly awkward, considering that DCHA Director Brenda Donald had caught wind of the press conference and stopped by to watch the proceedings unfold alongside some of her deputies and members of the authority’s new governing board.

“I’m not going to wait for more scandals or criminal activity to emerge in dribs and drabs while we use up resources triaging each one,” said White, who took over the housing committee from Bonds at the start of this year. “I’m not prepared to chase my tail when I see patterns of wrongdoing that require us to be proactive and to get to the bottom of the issues making our public housing agency less effective than we need it to be.”

The problem is that all of the things White proposed to do about these issues sure look like he’ll be merely pursuing his posterior, despite his assertions otherwise.

He demanded a “culture change” within the agency, as the audits show multiple allegations of problems with managers of DCHA’s voucher program for low-income tenants and a series of issues with its procurement practices. But White stopped short of calling for Donald or any other top officials to lose their jobs. He promised to ask for a broader investigation of the agency by the city’s Office of the Inspector General, pledged to seek answers from Donald in DCHA’s upcoming budget oversight hearing before his committee, and added that he’d be drafting some sort of new “transparency legislation” governing DCHA (but he didn’t have specifics yet). Loose Lips sees little reason for optimism that any of these requests will make a difference when the agency is treating his calls with such derision.

Donald herself told reporters on Thursday that she viewed these issues as “isolated incidents” instigated by “one or two bad apples,” some of whom have already been fired. She said the authority referred these matters to the OIG for investigations, but she feels that “to suggest and extrapolate that this is some systemic fraud and abuse within the housing authority is wrong.”

“Councilmember White has previously said that his north star is whatever is going to make public housing better,” Donald said. “Well, I fail to see how today’s press event even advances that cause.”

DCHA Director Brenda Donald. Credit: Alex Koma Credit: Alex Koma

The contempt with which DCHA regarded any insinuation that something might be wrong within the agency was pretty clear Thursday. When one reporter asked White to characterize his discussions with Donald, she exclaimed “I’m right here!” and looked about ready to run up the steps of Wilson Building to elbow White out of his spot in front of the cameras. When another asked White why he’d called the press conference, LL could make out someone in the cluster of DCHA staffers in attendance mumble “because he’s running for mayor.” (For what it’s worth, they may not be wrong about that; 2026 isn’t all that far away.) White has also asked DCHA to provide records supporting the $41,250 bonus that Donald received under mysterious circumstances, but so far he has been snubbed for those details.

That sort of attitude does not exactly suggest an agency ready to embrace reform just because White has called for it. DCHA has already parted ways with three of the employees targeted by the audits; two were accused of steering voucher holders to a favored landlord without disclosing improper conflicts of interest; another was allegedly helping people improperly jump the line to receive housing vouchers at a NoMa property. But the audits also detail allegations against senior staffers, including Donald, who don’t seem to have faced any repercussions.

The agency’s internal audits suggested that its own general counsel Lorry Bonds oversaw problematic procurement practices, and that its chief operating officer Rachel Molly Joseph withheld information about one contract at issue. Both were set to be put on leave by DCHA’s old governing board, only for Donald to override that decision, claiming the board didn’t have authority to make that call.

Donald herself also faced scrutiny over the handling of some of these contracts, and her efforts to suppress the internal audits from reaching the authority’s board. DCHA Auditor Petuna Cooper claimed Donald retaliated against her for raising these concerns and tried to block her access to the board; when LL asked about those allegations, Donald said that “the auditor has work products that, as her supervisor, I have to determine if they’re ready to share with the board, and that they’re factual.”

LL also asked when Donald referred the audits to the OIG for further investigation, but she would only say that it was “after we completed our internal work as we determine whether or not there is anything to send to the OIG.” An OIG spokesperson declined to comment, but the agency does have the authority to refer matters for criminal charges.

Perhaps the best hope for more accountability comes from DCHA’s board, newly rechristened the “Stabilization and Reform” board after the Council’s recent overhaul that ditched several prominent critics and added other allies of Mayor Muriel Bowser. White said he was pleased with their work so far, and he’s seen “pushback,” some of which contributed to these audits making their way to the board when DCHA had previously withheld them (another matter that Donald disputes).

But the presence of board Chair Raymond Skinner at Thursday’s press gaggle, where he said he was “here in support of Director Donald,” does not offer much hope for the board’s independence. Jim Dickerson, a prominent affordable housing developer and another board member, swung by to show his support too, as did Rosa Burbridge, a resident representative on the board.

“We’re looking forward, we’re not looking back to some of the things that happened years ago,” Skinner said. LL notes that some of the alleged malfeasance described in the audits occurred earlier this year and in the fall of 2022, under Donald’s leadership.

White believes the board will have to evaluate “a lot of open questions about when things happen, what the director knew, what the director should have known.” Donald’s favored status as a Bowser ally should make her pretty untouchable, despite these problems, but White would say that “as we get more information, I’m going to look to the board to make that decision” about her future. “But if the board doesn’t make a recommendation, certainly I will,” he added.

Yet the broad assumption around DCHA is that Donald isn’t long for the job no matter what. Rumor has it that she nearly resigned in the wake of the damaging federal audit of the agency last year, and even some councilmembers have spoken openly about her intention to walk away when her contract ends later this year. (When LL asked if she plans to step down at the end of her deal, Donald scoffed and walked away.)

It’s fair to wonder whether even a change in leadership will make a difference, considering the problems that plagued the authority have persisted under several directors. The agency’s most persistent critics, some of whom were tossed off its board last year, believe nothing will change until the city’s troubled relationship with the housing authority gets a do-over. And that’s something that White might not be able to do much about, no matter how often he gets in front of the microphones.

“My oversight work with DCHA has met more resistance than with any agency I’ve worked with,” White said. “As long as the agency has a reputation for being defensive, for not being transparent, and for wrongdoing going on inside the agency, the best and brightest people who can bring about this change are not going to go into the agency.”