CITY REQUESTS CRIMINAL PROBE OF CUTLIFF DEAL
Even in Albany, where the state open meetings and records laws are routinely violated, open government can prevail with citizen involvement.
For one day and regarding one issue of public concern, anyway.
Facing a roomful of angry citizens, many of whom had vehemently bent their ears during phone calls, City Commission members refused to let citizens speak but nevertheless voted 6-1 Tuesday night to reverse its decision last week to allow a Cutliff Grove Family Resource Center staffer, developer and others to walk with $364,000 in public funds from a failed housing development.
Indeed, the commission’s two-pronged decision included asking District Attorney Greg Edwards to investigate the matter. City Commissioners Dorothy Hubbard and Christopher Pike said citizen outrage against the commission’s decision last week prompted them to change their votes.
Mayor Willie Adams and commissioners Jon Howard and Bob Langstaff also reversed their Aug. 18 votes. Last week, Commissioner Roger Marietta was all alone in his insistence that taxpayers be reimbursed by Cutliff. Tommie Postell, who has proposed giving Cutliff Grove additional funding and has actively sought to have taxpayers pay for the failed project, cast the lone dissenting vote Tuesday, saying “they haven’t done nothing criminal and shouldn’t be investigated.”
Clearly, though, residents’ calls to Howard, Marietta, Pike, Hubbard and Langstaff resulted in the commission deciding to open City Manager Alfred Lott’s books to criminal investigators. An independent probe could result in criminal charges being filed against Cutliff officials, city staffers, both – or no one.
“In all my years on the commission, never has one issue been so unanimous in terms of citizen support. All of the calls I received were from people upset (about forgiving Cutliff Grove’s debt to the city),” Hubbard said.
Dr. McKinley Drake, the resource center’s chief executive officer and pastor of Greater Cutliff Grove Baptist Church, said after the vote that he welcomes the probe.
“We have nothing to hide. We have all the receipts, everything, all the invoices,” Drake said in an interview with The Albany Journal. “I have no problem with an investigation. We did nothing wrong.”
Cutliff Grove had proposed a housing development for low-income residents across from Greater Cutliff on the 800 block of West Broad Avenue. Because of irregularities on Lott’s staff’s part, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development forced the city to repay the $364,000 in federal funds that the city gave to Cutliff Grove in increments to get the project started. HUD also decertified Cutliff Grove as a community housing development corporation.
No criminal wrongdoing has been alleged, and after some commissioners initially labeled the district attorney’s probe as a “criminal investigation,” the City Commission deliberately decided not to have Adams use the word “criminal” in his letter asking for Edwards to look into the matter. However, the district attorney’s office investigates crimes – not civil matters.
Marietta, who offered to change his motion so that it didn’t include the word “criminal,” asked Adams, “Can I say ‘wrongdoing’?” After a brief discussion, Marietta simply put in his motion, which prevailed, that the district attorney’s office be asked to investigate the various aspects of the housing development deal.
The City Commission refused to allow citizens to speak Tuesday, adhering to its public input-quashing rule that citizens must sign up to speak at meetings two days before the commission’s agenda is published. Adams has often used his discretion to violate that policy, but opted not to Tuesday. Indeed, he altered the meeting agenda – with the commission’s compliance – to require the 100-plus residents on hand for the Cutliff Grove matter to stay until the end of the meeting before the issue was contemplated by the commission.
In an interview with the Journal, Rev. Lorenzo Heard, whose Greater Second Mount Olive Baptist Church has built federally backed low-income housing in partnership with the city, said after the meeting that Cutliff Grove is a victim of recessed economic conditions – and not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. He said that Cutliff Grove could have started and completed the housing project if it had access to “gap” funding to bridge financing shortfalls during unforeseen circumstances.
“That’s money that used to be there and is not any longer,” said Heard.
Indeed, Heard said that Mt. Olive’s efforts to house additional low-income residents have been hampered recently by its newfound inability – because of less federal funds being available — to leverage projects with Federal Home Loan Bank Affordable Housing Program financing, which he says “have dried up.”
With the commission’s action, it is likely that Lott, who as of Monday steadfastly withheld public records and refused to be interviewed for this report, now must relinquish over every public record to criminal investigators and subject himself and his staff to being questioned under the district attorney’s subpoena power. It’s unclear, though, whether Lott will still be city manager when the criminal probe is substantially under way, as some city commissioners privately told the Journal on Tuesday that there is a renewed effort to oust Lott. Lott’s violation of the state open records law is a misdemeanor crime that he has committed consistently – with the commission’s compliance – during his tenure, his first stint as a city manager after serving as a small-town Maryland public works director and assistant city manager.
Lott resigned under pressure earlier month in the wake of a scandal involving his human resources director, who has filed a federal race and sexual discrimination against Lott. But in a split, private decision, the commission gave Lott nearly 13 months – until July 31, 2011 — to leave his post.
The Cutliff Grove matter, however, has prompted some commissioners to work behind the scenes to force Lott to resign or to fire Lott in the coming weeks, instead.
Lott has been city manager since September 2005. The Cutliff Grove project was approved by the City Commission in 2004, and payments to Cutliff started being made in December 2005, retroactive to June 2005, public records show.
Edwards has a team of investigators on staff. It’s possible, though, that Edwards will directly avoid potential political biases – Adams, for example, supported Edwards over opponent Ingrid Driskell during the 2008 district attorney’s race – and have an independent special prosecutor from another jurisdiction look into the matter.
Edwards could not be reached for comment late Tuesday. Earlier Tuesday, though, he said federal investigators and/or prosecutors would be consulted if he looked into the Cutliff matter. He also said that although he recommends that elected officials bring potential criminal wrongdoing involving public funds to his attention, a citizen armed with evidence could prompt him to launch a probe.
“Yes, I could use my investigative division or possibly ask for GBI assistance in an investigation if there was something presented to me that indicated that a crime has been committed from what ever valid/verifiable source that might be,” he answered when asked if citizens can bypass the City Commission if it remained complicit to public fraud on its watch. “The FBI and US attorney would be consulted if the matter was one that involved federal statutes or federal parties.”
Still, it’s ideal for the City Commission to request an investigation, he said.
“I would recommend that any concerned citizen press their commissioner(s) to request a formal inquiry; in our representative method of government it would be very impractical for a commissioner to ignore such a request, if there of course is something that would appear to be afoot other than mismanagement,” he said. “Citizens often disagree with the management methodologies of government but ultimately oversight of public funds is the duty of the elected commissioners and appointed managers; if our limited resources are to be used, I would want more than disagreement to launch a criminal investigation. The standard of proof of a criminal act must be met beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Because a thing could have been done better may or may not have been the result of acts involving criminal intent. They (a citizen) would need to point out those things that are in contravention to practice, policy, or contractual agreement that would lead to a criminal inquiry, so in short, input from city officials would be needed to ultimately make a criminal case, if there is one to be made.”
Although one commissioner told a citizen this week that Edwards’ office was already investigating the Cutliff deal, that information was not correct, although “in response to the public outcry about the situation, I have informally considered alternatives to a review of the situation including consulting with the FBI and possibly the US Attorneys office,” Edwards said earlier Tuesday.
“At present the FBI indicates that HUD has its own investigative section, I have not received any word from HUD in this regard and anticipate that they are following the course announced publicly and that is that HUD will look to the City of Albany to recover its funds,” he said. “The City of Albany has the access to relevant documents and other records of the transactions involving this situation. The City of Albany is ostensibly the party that would have an interest if there is, in fact, some indication of criminal wrongdoing and if requested by appropriate City of Albany authority, I would proceed from that point; this would possibly include engaging the GBI.”