Return to sender

Texas regulators want $514,000 back from a Dallas anti-poverty agency

Problems continue to multiply for management of the Dallas County Community Action Committee, the anti-poverty agency that is big on hiring relatives and even better at making tax money disappear.

When allegations of mismanagement, waste, and nepotism first surfaced ["Family first," July 31], the agency's director, Cleo Sims, and board president, Ivory Givens, shrugged them off as "politics."

Then more information arose about the criminal records of Sims' relatives on the payroll, and Sims' alleged candy-on-Valentine's-Day relationship with a contractor who was paid $400,000 of state money to renovate an apartment house that, three years later, is falling apart ["Poor Relations," August 14].

Immediately, 12 people on the agency's 21-member board labeled the unsettling news a personal vendetta against Sims and expressed their "disgust" with attempts to "destroy her character and her family." The "sad part," the 12 board members wrote in an August 19 news release, was that most of the allegations are contained in a state monitoring report "that was written without seeking documentation readily available from [DCCAC] staff."

Well, Sims and her staff have had their chance over the past month to explain things to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, and according to a housing department reply dated August 28, DCCAC's problems aren't going away. In fact, they're getting worse.

Unless some new explaining is done over the next 15 days, DCCAC must begin paying back the state $514,000. The "disallowed costs," representing several dozen acts of alleged waste and mismanagement, are a substantial amount for an agency with an annual budget of $1.9 million.

Sims, reached Sunday, says she is continuing to fight the state audit team's findings and planned to accompany members of the board to meet with Larry Paul Manley, the housing department's executive director. Sims says she expects her political ally, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, would also be part of that meeting, attending via a conference call.

"Obviously we did not follow procurement processes," says Sims. "But there are no funds missing."

Asked if she has considered stepping down, Sims says, "I have not. I will not consider that unless the board asks me." The board gave her a vote of confidence on August 18, she says.

Board member Khaleef Hasan, who has no confidence in Sims, says, "Cleo's trying to save her butt first, and she'll take the agency down with her. The scary thing is that Cleo sees herself as DCCAC. There isn't anything there without her, in her opinion." Hasan says he is concerned conservatives will see the mismanagement under Sims and use it to close the program. He speculates that Johnson will try to pull some strings in Austin and Washington on Sims' behalf. Johnson could not be reached for comment.

Most of the money the state wants returned involves renovation of the Point Apartments, a 10-unit South Dallas apartment house that was completed in 1994 at the cost of more than $39,000 per unit.

DCCAC was unable to provide the state evidence that it solicited or received bids before hiring Charles Roberson, who was paid $398,943 as the general contractor.

Late last month, a city of Dallas inspector gave the structure a 59 on a 100-point scale. Anything under 80 flunks.

DCCAC attempted to lay blame for the shoddy work--deteriorating exterior walls, decking, fencing and interior flooring--"solely in the construction and with the contractor." But the state says its contract with DCCAC makes the agency liable for the work.

"Since the Department's initial report, TDHCA became aware of an alleged relationship between Charles Roberson of Roberson Construction and Cleo Sims," the state wrote. "That alleged conflict combined with lack of procurement, the excessive cost of rehabilitation, and the condition of the property causes the department great concern."

Sims says it is "absolutely false" that she had a personal relationship with Roberson, who landed several other major projects for the agency, including building a strip shopping plaza and a $100,000 apartment renovation.

Three agency employees say Sims and Roberson were very close; one recalls that he sent her flowers and expensive candy on Valentine's Day 1994.

Much of the rest of the disallowed costs involve such things as Sims' hiring her son Harvey Scott to do maintenance work at the agency's apartments. The agency owes the state $42,154 for that decision. Sims has canceled Scott's contract, and one for her daughter Bridgett Sims, who was hired as a $25,000-a-year apartment manager.

The state also is unsatisfied with the agency's explanation for why its former board president, Charles Hunter, needed a taxpayer-funded cellular phone, on which he ran up 15,311 minutes of calls in 15 months. The state wants $3,110 paid back for that.

The state also wants to be repaid for the $582 worth of collect phone calls the agency accepted from area jails.

Sims says she will instruct her staff to refrain from accepting those calls, but it appears that the Sims clan has been more part of the problem than the solution.

Matt Golla, a public defender who represented Bridgett Sims' boyfriend on federal robbery charges, says his client, Earnest Thompson, would often make collect calls to DCCAC. "He'd talk to his girlfriend and then hook me up on a three-way connection," says Golla. "He'd call all the time."

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