The Housing Authority of Maricopa County Fires a Whistleblower
It's not easy to get fired from the Housing Authority of Maricopa County. Just look at the agency's former executive director, Doug Lingner: He misused agency credit cards, hired at least three relatives, and steered work to political cronies, all in his first two years on the job. He still didn't get the ax.
Nope, even after those misdeeds were exposed (by this newspaper) and confirmed (by an agency-hired investigator), the housing authority's board of commissioners allowed Lingner to resign. They also gave him three months' severance, or roughly $25,000.
Now, you might think that they're just nice guys. You might think that they let Lingner off easily because they didn't have the heart to kick a man on his way down.
You might think that, that is, until you see what they did to Janet Belfield.
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Belfield, a longtime agency employee, is the one who blew the whistle on Lingner. And last week, she was fired by the housing authority. No severance. No chance to resign.
There's not a doubt in my mind that her treatment is directly related to her attempts to expose Lingner.
A 13-year veteran of the housing authority, Belfield declines to discuss exactly whom she talked to regarding Lingner and exactly what she said. She's still appealing her termination; she wants her written appeal to speak for itself.
But the record is clear on three points.
One: Last winter, Belfield reached out to a contact at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides almost all the housing authority's funding. In recent months, that agency has been conducting an on-site investigation — and has publicly blasted housing authority operations under Lingner.
Two: Belfield was also providing information to Tania Huff. Huff had been laid off from the housing authority. Lingner had claimed there was no money to keep her, even as a paid position was being created for his 17-year-old son.
It's Huff who contacted the Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the local NAACP. Tillman began to push for action from Lingner and then, when he resisted, the board of commissioners.
Huff also went on the record in my earliest exposé of conditions at the housing authority. That cover story directly led to Lingner's being put on leave — and, ultimately, to his forced resignation.
The housing authority under Lingner knew Huff was a problem. And they wanted to know who was giving her information.
Three: By its own accounting, the housing authority terminated Belfield for reasons directly related to her contacts with Huff, HUD, and other outside parties.
The official word is that she was fired for "dishonesty." But here's what Belfield's "dishonesty" amounted to: Questioned by an investigator hired by Lingner, at a time when he was still the agency's director, she claimed she hadn't provided information to ex-employees such as Huff.
Just 11 days later, she came clean. In a meeting with that same investigator, Belfield admitted to all her contacts.
Never mind. She was fired for her initial "dishonesty" last week.
I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that Belfield's brief dishonesty wasn't the problem. Not at all.
The problem, I think, was her honesty.
The problem was that she told the truth about Doug Lingner.
Janet Belfield's father was a captain in a small-town police department, a fact she's quick to volunteer. It explains how she sees the world. It also explains why she wasn't content to roll over and let Doug Lingner violate every policy in the housing authority's manual.
"The environment in which I was raised was to do the right thing, and follow the law," she explains. "I was raised to weigh in when speaking up, knowing that there will be consequences."
Belfield came to the housing authority almost 14 years ago. She was hired to be secretary to the director, back when the agency was still part of Maricopa County government. She quickly found herself handling all sorts of unrelated jobs. First, it was human resources, on a part-time basis in addition to her secretarial duties. Then, she became the purchasing agent. Finally, under Lingner, she was named grants writer.
In every case, her bosses sought her out for promotion. She wasn't ambitious. But she was a hard worker. "I loved it," she says simply. "I loved it."
All that started to change in the summer of 2008, when Lingner was hired as the agency's new director. He hadn't been the first choice of staffers — as I reported at the time, they preferred a man with experience in HUD regulations and housing authority work. But thanks in part to Lingner's political ties, the board of commissioners chose him anyway.
Today, people at the housing authority have been trying to dissociate themselves from Lingner, and with good cause: His brief tenure was disastrous.
But while Lingner was director, he got his way. When, for example, he decided to get his 17-year-old son a paid position at the housing authority — in clear violation of the agency's anti-nepotism policy — employees raised only nominal concerns, according to a report from the agency's investigator.
Rather than complain to commissioners, in fact, the agency's human resources director actually figured out a scheme in which the teenager could be paid off the books. That cost the agency more than it would've had Brandon Lingner been hired outright, because his hiring came through a temp agency — which tacked on its surcharge to his hourly rate.
The board of commissioners didn't seem interested in interfering anyway. When Huff was let go to make way for Lingner's son, she tried desperately to interest commissioners in her plight. No dice; even the Reverend Tillman couldn't get them to intervene.
As an employee who depended on the housing authority for her livelihood, Belfield was understandably nervous about open rebellion. But she made her distaste for Lingner's methods clear — to the point that when he got an anonymous letter criticizing his nepotism, he told other employees it must have come from Belfield.
Sure enough, Belfield soon began supplying information both to Huff and other contacts. "I was hoping that it would light a candle, and some sort of movement would happen," she says.
That did happen, eventually. But first, Lingner came after Belfield.
In January, Belfield was placed on paid leave. She was given no information about what she'd supposedly done for nearly five months.
Today, the facts are clear. Lingner trumped up a reason to investigate Belfield — and hired both an attorney and a forensic computer analyst to dig deeply into her work habits. And though Lingner's initial allegation was found to be meritless, by that point, they'd dug up enough dirt to get her on a technicality.
In January, documents show, Lingner hired attorney Kate Baker to investigate whether Belfield had steered work to favored contractors. He also used agency funds for a full forensic analysis of her hard drive.
The first investigation turned out to be a deplorable waste of money. Baker found no evidence that Belfield had done anything unethical.
Lingner, Baker wrote, "admitted he did not have the facts to prove it." Baker's investigation yielded nothing, either. "The evidence gathered to date does not establish the truth of that allegation," Baker concluded.
But the forensic analysis did turn up a few useful tidbits, including the fact that Belfield had once browsed Facebook while at work. (That's not exactly shocking, but it's still a policy violation.)
More importantly, she'd also forwarded e-mails about housing authority matters to her personal account — and, from there, to several contacts.
To me, there's a question of pettiness here. Who hasn't forwarded work-related documents to personal accounts or to friends? Equally importantly, each e-mail generated by the housing authority is, technically, a public record.
More to the point, Belfield had a higher purpose in her forwards. It wasn't just that she disliked Lingner — although that's clear from the paper trail. She was also intent on making a written record of the shenanigans she was witnessing.
On March 5, Baker confronted Belfield about her e-mail activity.
At the time, a current of fear ran high through the office. My story about Lingner had just been published, and though Lingner had been placed on paid leave, he was still the executive director.
The acting director, Karen Mofford, made that clear to employees. At a staff meeting, she explained that the commissioners had placed Lingner on leave, but he stood by Mofford's side at the meeting. Employees tell New Times that she made a point of saying he was still the director and still in charge. (Mofford denied the allegation.)
And even though the commissioners had stipulated that Lingner was to have no contact with employees, several of them called New Times that day to report that he lingered on premises for at least four hours after the meeting. He was also reported to be on-site that weekend.
It was hard not to be paranoid.
So when Baker questioned Belfield about whether she'd been in contact with former employees, and whether she'd complained about Lingner, Belfield initially said no.
When Baker pressed, Belfield said she didn't want to talk without legal representation.
Two weeks later, though, on March 16, Belfield returned for an interview. She came alone, and she admitted the truth.
She had forwarded e-mails, she said. She was, in fact, in contact with various former coworkers, she acknowledged, although she declined to identify Huff specifically.
Baker's report shows that she'd asked Belfield about the owner of an e-mail account identified as "soulsistah254." Belfield wouldn't confirm it, but Baker reports that the handle belongs to Huff.
Baker's report also notes that Belfield had forwarded e-mails to Sanford Prouty, an employee at Phoenix's HUD office.
Belfield had no contact with the housing authority, or its attorneys, for months.
In April, Lingner was allowed to resign. His former deputy, Mofford, became interim director and was given a raise for her troubles.
Then, out of the blue last month, attorneys representing the housing authority summoned Belfield and allowed her to peruse Baker's final report.
And though the report clears Belfield of the more serious allegations of steering contracts, it does delve into her initial dishonesty and Internet use. She "misused the e-mail system" by "sending and receiving personal e-mails, using the e-mail system to disparage HAMC employees and spread gossip, bring discredit to the HAMC, and breaching confidentiality regarding ongoing personnel matters," Baker wrote.
At that point, Baker added a defensive footnote: "The issue is not that she held unfavorable opinions about Lingner and others, but that she used work time, HAMC computers, the HAMC e-mail system, and HAMC information — some of it confidential — to further her personal agenda of disparaging Lingner and the entity."
Given a chance to respond, Belfield tackled the footnote head-on.
"Any ridicule brought to Lingner or the agency was brought on by Lingner through his actions," she wrote, "and his denigration of the entity continues by those that remain in contact with him to support his personal mission to dismiss me, which, in my opinion, is retaliation in a most deliberate form."
Indeed, it's hard to imagine a more clear-cut whistleblower case.
And yet, last week, Mofford, the interim director, fired Belfield. Mofford's letter did not mention her Facebook surfing. It only dealt with her supposed "dishonesty" on March 5.
"Your dishonesty during Ms. Baker's initial interview cannot be tolerated," she wrote.
Pardon my cynicism, but that's bunk, and Mofford knows it.
It's not Belfield's brief dishonesty they can't tolerate. It's that her honesty led to Lingner's ouster, to HUD's on-site visit, to the housing authority being forced to clean up its act.
It's funny to me that the board tiptoed around Lingner's resignation, trying desperately to save itself from a lawsuit, even when it was clear that he had no real ability to fight back.
Yet by firing Belfield, Mofford has acted in a way that almost guarantees the housing authority will have a legal mess on its hands. If Belfield wants to sue, I'm confident that she has one hell of a case.
Federal law clearly protects whistleblowers. Meanwhile, a 13-year veteran with a clean record has been axed for something this petty? A good lawyer would have a field day with this one.
But I'm not actually all that confident that Belfield wants to sue. What she really wants, she says, is change.
It's clear that problems at the housing authority go far beyond Lingner. We now know that they extend to the deputies who enabled him, to the interim director now doing his dirty work, and to the mindset that it's somehow a crime to forward public records to people who might bring about much-needed reform.
"Anybody that runs on government funds on any level, there's supposed to be transparency," Belfield tells me. "That's a given. It's my tax dollars. It's yours!
"The HAMC has lost all sight of why it exists," she says. "They exist to assist people." But it's hard to focus on affordable housing when you waste six months trying to help your former director cover his ass.
SO LONG, FAREWELL
In case you haven't heard, I'm leaving Arizona to work as the managing editor at New Times' sister paper in St. Louis, the Riverfront Times. And it's fitting, I suppose, that my final column in Phoenix is about the Housing Authority of Maricopa County.
To me, this story exemplifies everything I hate about Phoenix — as well as everything I've grown to love. I don't think there's anywhere else in the country where con men prosper so quickly, where rules are broken so casually, where the rule of law is something that's enforced only on the poor and the alien.
In almost any other big city, a guy like Doug Lingner would still be setting tile, not given the keys to a major nonprofit organization. In other places, people would be up in arms demanding Joe Arpaio's resignation. (Say what you will about immigration, but this clown has squandered $45 million in lawyer fees and insurance payments! $45 million!) In other states, too, a guy facing a credible threat of disbarment — ahem, Andrew Thomas! — would not be considered a viable candidate for state attorney general.
Let's face it: Shysters thrive here. Too many people are transplants who don't care. Too many people hew too closely to ideology and have no interest in getting at the truth.
And yet, I've met more brave people in this state than anywhere else I've lived. It's been easy to be a reporter here. For every con man, there's someone willing to turn him in. For every Doug Lingner, there's a Janet Belfield.
I may not miss the dry white heat of Phoenix summers. But I will miss having this weekly soapbox. And I'll miss the brave people of Arizona, too.
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