By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sims says state officials inspected the project at the outset, approved the budget, and were there when it opened. "If they felt it was overpriced, they should have come in 1993 and said so. They have to stop throwing rocks and hiding the chickens," she says.
Thus far, the state concluded, DCCAC has not provided supporting documentation for $127,569 supposedly spent on the renovation. The amount is part of the first draw of grant money.
Sims says that the first draw of money was paid to the general contractor, Charles Roberson, and that a second draw was not released until the state approved the first.
A visual inspection of the little two-story red and white apartment building "raises questions as to the type, the extent, and the quality of rehabilitation completed as well as the costs associated with the scope of the work," the state found.
The state inspectors listed the use of cheap plywood flooring and the fact that the railing on the second story balcony--which looks to be nothing more than nailed-on cedar fencing--had already fallen off. Some new fencing appears to have been recently nailed up. Other parts of the balcony are weathered two-by-fours. Leaks in the plumbing and unsafe flooring in the five second-story units also hinted at the cheap quality of the renovation.
Roberson could not be reached for comment.
DCCAC was also unable to show the state whether it put the job out for bids, the review found.
Sims says that tenants in the one-bedroom, approximately 500-square-foot units have been unemployed homeless men who at times have hauled off televisions and other items and sold them across the street for drugs. The agency now uses the building to house homeless women.
She says DCCAC is current on its mortgage payments, even though rents, set at about $345 per apartment, don't cover expenses.
The audit also questioned $14,446 in DCCAC checks paid to director Sims, including a $1,747 payroll advance, payments for items purchased and then returned, and hotel charges.
The review alleges that Sims routinely failed to supply documentation of travel expenses for which she was reimbursed: $159 in January 1996; $616 in May 1996; $262 in June 1996; $252 in August 1996; $934 in September 1996; $249 in October 1996; $289 in November 1996; and $321 in December 1996.
Sims says the state auditors did not check the agency's detailed travel files for those items. She showed the Observer files of specific expenses, requested at random, that appear to put the state's concerns to rest. "There's no misappropriation of funds going on here," Sims insisted.
A trip to San Francisco in early September, for instance, coincided with the National Association of Community Action Agency's Annual Conference, held at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel. Sims says approval by then-president Hunter constituted board approval of the trip, which the state said in its audit was lacking.
DCCAC assistant finance director Patty Wright produced receipts for a $319 air conditioner the state alleges was purchased and returned, without the money returning to the account. The paperwork showed that an air conditioner was returned, then another one purchased. Wright says the first one was defective.
Sam Guzman, administrative director for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, would not discuss the unreleased report, but says the agency "has 30 days to respond and may clear up a lot of these things."
He says that his department was responding to complaints about the program, but that the review of those complaints was done in the course of a routine annual monitoring visit. If major problems go unanswered, the department has an array of sanctions available, from demanding reimbursement to terminating programs.
Board president Givens says he is satisfied with Sims' explanations of the travel and expense items. "She's not a thief," he says.
Sims says the agency board president and other board members, not her, sign checks for the agency. The impression the audit report gives "couldn't be further from the truth," according to Sims, who says she is paid about $60,000 a year. "My car is a 1988 falling-apart car that falls down every other week. Everybody who knows me knows I don't steal, and I've done the very best I can to make sure that doesn't go on here. We don't have petty cash. We don't accept cash for rents. Our checks are done in sequence, and there's never a missing check.
"If you believed the idiots out there, I wouldn't be driving a car that falls down once a week," she adds.
Sims' reference was to a group of men who have challenged her and her allies on the board over the past seven monts, going so far as to attempt a coup at the agency's February meeting.
About a half-dozen men came forward with letters from public officials appointing them to the board. The board, protecting Sims, rejected the appointments.
Charges of wrongdoing erupted at the same time as the fight to control the board.
"Cleo Sims feels she can control the agency by controlling the board, but people like myself thought otherwise," says Ken Green, a board member in the early '90s whose attempt to regain a seat this spring was rebuffed. "We were trying to get on the board to right these wrongs."