PLEASANT POINT — Federal housing officials have shut off development funds to the Passamaquoddy Indian reservation here because of questionable administrative practices and possible misuse of federal funds by the former executive director of the housing authority.
Based on an investigation in November, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials say the housing authority is not eligible for funding for new housing starts, renovations and training because of activities approved by the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation Housing Authority. Many of the complaints involve a large house — dubbed “the mansion” by critics — occupied by former housing director Pamela Francis and her husband.
During an interview, Francis, who has been criticized by some reservation residents for favoring family members and friends in subsidized housing decisions, denied any wrongdoing. All funding decisions were made by the housing authority’s board of commissioners in public meetings, she said.
HUD’s inspector general is also investigating allegations that Indian Township’s former executive director of housing, Tammy Sabattus, may have spent HUD funds for personal use, said Alex Sachs, a HUD public affairs specialist Thursday.
Indian Township Gov. John Stevens said Thursday he could not comment about an ongoing investigation, but he said Sabattus had been suspended. Indian Township is Pleasant Point’s sister reservation near Princeton.
The HUD investigation report alleges that in 1992 Francis’ father, Edward R. Bassett, who lived alone, moved from a HUD-subsidized two-bedroom home to a HUD-subsidized four-bedroom home, with his daughter named as his successor in the event of his death. Bassett’s monthly payment was $133 when it should have been $527, based on his reported income, the report alleges.
Before Bassett died in 1995, Francis moved into the house, and continues to pay $133 despite a family income of more than $75,000. Francis made improvements to the house, including a spiral staircase and a 40-by-30-foot master bedroom, requesting reimbursement of $10,833 from the housing authority.
Other allegations in the nine-page report:
The housing authority has conducted transactions with businesses in which an unnamed employee owns an interest.
The authority drew on a line of credit to construct a house for Francis’ brother-in-law and his wife, James and Sharon Francis, without a formal agreement.
Authority records indicate supplies and equipment have been bought on behalf of residents using the authority’s tax identification number.
Changes have been made in development contracts without HUD approval, including the spending of funds intended for construction of 20 units when only 15 were actually built. “The review team could not determine where the funds for the five units were spent,” said the HUD report.
The report also alleges $15,588 was used to relocate a dilapidated horse barn owned by Francis. The authority also spent $84,019 to purchase a house from Francis — which she obtained from her son for $1 — for its replacement value, rather than its appraised value.
HUD urged the authority to conduct its own investigation into its transactions with a development firm allegedly owned by Francis’ sister and husband, and a travel agency owned by her sister.
HUD has directed the commissioners and staff to work with HUD officials to develop a plan to address the problems at the housing authority.
One of the remedies HUD has suggested is a review of Francis’ household income to ascertain if she is eligible for HUD housing. If she is not eligible, HUD officials said, she should be given notice to vacate the house in which she now resides.
There are now 104 people, most of them living in rental units on the reservation, who are waiting for housing, said Annie Brackett, chairwoman of the housing authority.
“Our waiting list is not as bad as they make it out to be, but then again we still are compiling an accurate waiting list. She [Francis] had three or four of them floating around,” Brackett said.
Other corrective measures include requirements that the housing authority never again pledge assets to secure loans as it did with Francis’ brother-in-law, and that it determine accurate costs for all development projects so they can be managed within budget.
The housing authority was given until Jan. 19 to respond to the report. Although housing and renovation funds have been eliminated for 1997, HUD officials in Washington, D.C., said the authority’s operating budget of $280,674 was not cut.
During the maelstrom of controversy that has followed her during the past few months, Francis has proudly pointed to her 9 1/2 years as executive director and the nearly $20 million in HUD grant money that she and her staff attracted for construction, renovation and resident programs. The program has been cited by HUD officials as a national model.
But state Rep. Fred Moore III, who over the years has been critical of Francis’ dictatorial style, predicted that Francis’ recent problems were just the “tip of the iceberg.”
“Ultimately the tribal government must bear some responsibility for this. People have gone to the tribal government in the past and demanded that some things be done about this [allegations about Francis],” he said.
Brackett defended the tribal council. She said the council took action last year when it appointed new commissioners, and after an internal investigation, Francis was suspended and ultimately terminated.
Over the years Francis has had a sometimes tense relationship with various housing authority commissioners and has been suspended on at least two occasions. In November, she was fired and replaced by Colleen Dana-Cummings.
She was hired by the National American Indian Housing Council to train housing authority staff and directors. Francis lost that job after some of her past practices as executive director came to light in a newspaper series in the The Seattle Times, officials for NAIHC said.
Contacted Wednesday, Francis maintained that as housing director she did not have the authority to give a home to anyone, “including myself, family members or anyone else.” She said selections were made and approved by the board of commissioners.
Moore disagreed. “If the board did not make the decisions she asked it to make, she would have a temper tantrum,” he said.
Brackett also defended former commissioners. “I know HUD has said that a lot of this was done with the sanction of the old board. I think it unfair to lump everyone together and say that the board knew some of these things were not allowed. A board depends on the director for the information that is submitted,” she said.
Francis said she had met with an attorney to review her options, including filing a lawsuit against the housing authority.
“This report is a reflection of some of those commissioners, their gripes, the things that they like to pinpoint to create this picture of mismanagement and the illusion about this stuff going on. … During all this training I have gone to with HUD they told me, `You are a business. Do what you can. … Develop opportunities for your people. Leverage your money.’ … If I am guilty of anything, I am guilty of that. I used Pleasant Point’s program to the best of my ability to service Pleasant Point,” she said.
Francis responded to the criticism about her $133 house payment by saying that was the “ceiling” paid by homeowners. She said there were two programs, a rental program for low-income people and a home-buying program for tribal members with higher incomes.
“We don’t tell people they have to move off the reservation because they make too much money. We need to provide affordable housing no matter who they are and how much they make,” she said.
HUD does not agree. “The housing authority had set a ceiling without HUD approval,” Sachs said. “That ceiling was $133 per month. which is not permissible under this program. … They [Francis and her husband] should have been paying 30 percent of their adjusted income.”
Francis said she was amazed at what had happened during the past few months.
“HUD knew how I was running the program. They all knew that. They were using me as an example all over the country, because I was running the housing authority as a business. … I had all of these excellent ratings,” she said. “Nobody has said there is any money missing … because every penny is accounted for. We were careful about that,” she said.
Moore said he did not wish to minimize Francis’ effort. He said she had attracted a lot of federal money to the reservation. “There is no question she has done good things for native people,” he said.
Brackett agreed. “HUD needs to take some responsibility for what has happened here. … They were the ones … calling it an award-winning housing authority,” she said.
The commissioners plan to appeal HUD’s decision to freeze their building and renovation funds. “Our director has written to HUD outlining all the actions to address the deficiencies and asking them to take another look at the fact we have a new director and a new board, none of whom are responsible for any of this,” Bracket said.
Although there is a storm of controversy at Indian Township and Pleasant Point, not all Indian housing agencies are in trouble in Maine. At Indian Island, near Old Town, Sachs said, HUD officials have given the Penobscot housing authority high marks. “They would garner our top rating,” he said.