By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
At the Dallas County Community Action Committee, charity really does begin at home.
Cleo Sims, executive director of the government-supported anti-poverty agency, set up her daughter, a convicted cocaine dealer, with a $25,000-a-year contract to manage two agency apartments in drug-infested parts of South Dallas.
She put her son to work under a property maintenance agreement.
And she has the state asking, among other things, where all the money went in a $443,000 renovation of a 10-unit South Dallas apartment complex for the homeless.
A yet-to-be-released state audit obtained by the Dallas Observer raises questions about the Sims family connections and suggests waste and possible corruption at the $1.9-million-a-year nonprofit corporation, which employs 29.
DCCAC, which provides the poor and homeless with housing, rental assistance, and computer training, has somehow kept its doors open for more than 30 years despite being rocked every decade or so with major scandal. In the late '80s, before Sims took control, things got so bad that a judge appointed a receiver to run the agency. Employees were caught paying their own electric bills with money meant for the poor.
The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs' latest review of the agency's three government programs, dated July 9, gives Sims 30 days to respond to the state's questions about agency finances, but several DCCAC board members say they are satisfied with Sims' responses.
In an interview this week, Sims provided documents that appear to allay some of the state's concerns about misuse of funds. But she acknowledged that her daughter and son received DCCAC contracts--an apparent breach of federal rules on nepotism and conflict of interest. DCCAC gets more than 75 percent of its budget from the government; the rest comes from rents, donations, and sales at two thrift stores and a restaurant.
"We're gonna work on that at the next board meeting," DCCAC board president Ivey Givens said when asked about the Sims family contracts. Charles Hunter, who stepped down from the board presidency in February after seven years in the post, says he approved hiring Sims' daughter but did not know of her criminal background.
The state auditing team sent to Dallas on May 22 turned up federal tax forms showing that Bridgett Griffin, who is Cleo Sims' 27-year-old daughter, received $25,683 last year as a contractor for DCCAC.
Sims' agency hired Griffin as manager for two apartment complexes, the Meadows Apartments and Ewing Place Apartments, Sims says. The Meadows Apartments, located east of Fair Park on Meadow Street, are largely boarded up, run-down units that the agency purchased two years ago.
State auditors nailed down the arrangement between mother and daughter by noting that Griffin and Sims at one time shared the same address: 9715 Springtree Lane in Dallas.
County court records show that the daughter was arrested in Dallas on three counts of delivery of cocaine in 1994. She pleaded no contest and was found guilty last August. She received 10 years' probation and a $750 fine.
"I love my daughter dearly and unconditionally," Sims says. "I do what I can to assist my kids to become better folk. I didn't hide it [her daughter's criminal background] from Dr. Hunter. I talked to him about it, and he saw no problems in trying to assist her. She needed a job.
"I don't think you will find anyone at the Meadows who will say she engaged in or allowed the practice of dealing drugs."
The state audit also reveals that Griffin signed invoices for a company called Ocean Port Services, which Sims acknowledged to the Observer is actually her son Harvey Scott.
DCCAC's agreement with Ocean Port for 1995 set out a modest fee schedule--$25 per yard for mowing and $50 a day for maintenance work. Sims was unable to immediately provide records of how much Ocean Port was paid.
Ocean Port Services also was given the job of picking up items donated to DCCAC, although the state noted that a staff employee already was assigned to do that work.
Sims also says that another son, Gary Sims, was paid to do some manual labor for the agency.
The director says the agency has terminated her kids' contracts on the advice of its attorney, although tenants at the Meadows said Tuesday that Scott was there as recently as Monday.
Sims says she believes her daughter's contract was not a violation of federal policy because the two apartment projects get absolutely no government money--a statement also contradicted by tenants' accounts.
Several say the federal government pays half their rent to DCCAC under the Section 8 program.
Of perhaps greatest concern to the state, auditors noted that a DCCAC project called the Point Apartments, 10 units at 1803 E. Grand Ave., are already deteriorating and only 60 percent occupied just three years after the state provided $443,377 to renovate them.
DCCAC acquired the building as a donation from an insurance company; the rehab money--amounting to a $300,000 loan and a $143,000 grant--came through the state's Housing Trust Fund program. "Because of the severity of the condition of the property in relation to the short amount of time which has elapsed since rehabilitation and the amount of investment per unit, the Department questions the entire amount of the award," the state report concludes. In plain language, the state wonders whether the renovations add up to anything near the amount of the grant.