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.

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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske