In Focus

Housing Authority under scrutiny over truck, checks

Friday, March 09, 2012

There are serious questions about how much some Harris County employees were paid by the Housing Authority. We investigated a county agency that sees things differently than you may -- a free truck to drive to and from work that isn't a perk and a one time salary check that isn't a bonus. According to state law, trucks and bonuses are against the law, so that would never be done, right?

The Harris County Housing Authority builds homes for needy citizens. But after Friday's report was released, there was no celebration. It's a letter from the county attorney attempting to clear up questions about how public money was spent on trucks and salary increases.

The truck was a $46,000 Chevy Avalanche bought by the Housing Authority last February for this man, Casey Wallace. He was a lawyer, and at that time, the volunteer chairman of the authority's board. The Housing Authority thought it was in their words "more convenient" to buy him a truck instead of reimbursing him for mileage in his own car. He apparently needed to visit two construction sites daily.

Texas law says Wallace, "may not receive compensation for service as a commissioner," and that "any personal use of such a vehicle would be prohibited."

The County Attorney's office tells us Wallace drove the car from his home in Spring to his office in downtown Houston, and then at some point during the day, he would visit a construction site off FM 1960 and another one in Humble. They also tell us he drove it to meetings at another job he had as the lawyer for the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, which had nothing to do with the Housing Authority. The authority though paid for the car and the insurance.

The county attorney looked into all of it and decided in the letter that nothing was illegal, but said it probably wasn't the best way to handle this.

The other matter was 12 one-time payments to Housing Authority employees averaging more than $12,000 a piece. They were made at one time in one check to employees for work they'd already done at a lower pay scale. Bonuses are illegal under Texas law, but the county attorney says those payments were not bonuses, but so-called equalization payments to make up for earned but unpaid wages -- and he says that's OK.

Casey Wallace returned the free truck months ago when the county started asking questions and has since left the Housing Authority's board. He told us this is more complicated than it seems and despite a promise to call back, he never did. The Housing Authority made that same promise and emailed us back the words, "No comment."

By the way, there is no sign that any policy has changed at the Housing Authority since all this happened.

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