By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
But one current and one former agency employee both say the amounts paid the Sims relatives were in excess of in-house guidelines. "There are other rules for Cleo's relatives," the current employee says.
Whether the payments pass muster or not, they are nothing compared with the blatant nepotism by the Sims clan, which has used the publicly funded organization as a sort of family employment agency for the past three to four years. Three of Cleo Sims' children have received agency work over that time--and they weren't recruits out of property management school. All three have felonies on their records, ranging from convictions on drug charges for daughter Bridgett and son Harvey Scott, to burglary and car theft in the case of son Gary Sims, who did manual labor around the properties from time to time.
Mother Cleo, the agency's glib $60,000-a-year administrator, was convicted of misdemeanor theft for writing a hot check in 1977, records show. She went to court twice more in the mid-1980s for hot checks, receiving probation both times; her record was cleared after she successfully completed probation on the later charge in 1986.
Cleo Sims was in court again in 1995, indicted in Dallas on a federal money-laundering charge. The indictment alleges she attempted to buy a 1993 Cadillac Seville with money the government claimed she knew was obtained in a robbery.
She was accused of acting as a "straw man," buying the car with $10,000 she received from Ernest Thompson, who was convicted for carrying out a string of seven armed robberies with Anthony Robinson, Sims' nephew, according to records and interviews with federal prosecutors.
Robinson's attorney, Paul Watler, recalls that the police moved in on the three as they test-drove the car at Lone Star Cadillac on Northwest Highway. The money-laundering charge was dismissed last year after Sims testified as a government witness against Thompson during a pretrial hearing, records show. Robinson was convicted last September on federal robbery charges, sentenced to 22 years, and sent to the pen in Leavenworth, Kansas. Thompson, Bridgett Sims' boyfriend, pleaded guilty and got 15 years.
Given these snapshots from the Sims family album, it's ironic that DCCAC runs criminal background checks on prospective tenants before they can rent one of the agency's marginal apartments.
Sims' seven-year tenure at the DCCAC has finally begun to win her detractors. Over the past year, against a backdrop of internal conflict about Sims' management, a quiet struggle has gone on to control the agency's 21-member board. At one meeting last spring, things got so hot that Sims' supporters on the panel called in constables to keep the peace.
So far, the board has supported Sims, who says she has done nothing wrong save loving her kids.
The critics "are making us sound like thieves. I have a real problem with that," says Sims, who adds that the kids were taken off their contracts last month. Says I.J. Givens, a community representative from the agency's Sand Branch office who since February has been the DCCAC's board president: "Miss Sims is doing an outstanding job."
The agency's governing board consists of seven people appointed by local government officials, seven from community organizations, and seven elected from the poor communities the agency is meant to serve. The idealistic design is a holdover from DCCAC's birth in 1965 as a lead agency in President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. It is one of 52 community action committees in Texas.
Despite the lofty goal of getting a cross-section of society in the leadership, the unwieldy set-up has made for weak boards and loose oversight, observers say, and DCCAC has had more than its share of scandal over the years. In the late 1980s, prior to Sims' tenure as executive director, the agency nearly went out of existence amid accusations of theft and corruption, including charges that employees paid their own electric bills or weather-proofed their houses with money meant for the poor. Before that debacle was over, the agency lost five programs, including Head Start. The staff dwindled from 80 to 16. The budget shrank from $12 million to $1 million, and DCCAC's reputation, along with any prayer of private contributions, evaporated.
Now, a new scandal has officially been declared.
In May, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs sent in a team of six auditors, who completed the agency's latest monitoring report July 9.
The report asks DCCAC to answer dozens of questions concerning possible corruption, waste, and mismanagement at the 32-year-old nonprofit group.
Sources tell the Observer that state regulators have been receiving employee complaints for nearly two years about the Sims family nepotism and other violations of federal rules. But the follow-up investigation has moved along slowly.
Last year's audit raised "major questions," including the amount the agency was paying Cleo Sims' son Harvey Scott and why the organization let its past president, Charles Hunter, serve two years past the end of his five-year term. DCCAC stalled the bureaucrats on some questions for almost a year, prompting a letter in June from Sam Guzman, the housing department's director of administration. He warned Sims of
"the severity of the findings"; "the delinquency of a response from DCCAC"; and the fact that "many of the serious findings cited are still in existence."
While the state groused, it increased the agency's allotment 25 percent this year under the Community Service Block Grant, which provides the bulk of DCCAC's $1.9 million annual budget and pays its staff of 29.