Doug Lingner's Getting Pushed Out of the Housing Authority of Maricopa County -- But His Resignation Isn't Enough to Solve the Agency's Problems

Last Thursday, the board of directors of the Housing Authority of Maricopa County voted to accept the resignation of its executive director, Doug Lingner.

The only problem? There was no resignation for the board to accept — not on Thursday, anyway. The board was voting optimistically, in hopes that Lingner would sign an agreement with it in the next five days: He would agree to quit; the board would agree to stop the investigation of his actions.

Now, usually in cases of "resignations," everyone takes pains to stress their mutual cooperation. Oh no, they'll tell reporters. No one is being forced out.

Not so at the housing authority.

By accepting Lingner's resignation before it was offered, the board, I think, was making a point: It wanted Lingner out of there, ASAP. But Lingner wasn't working on anyone's schedule but his own, as he stressed when I sent him an e-mail asking for comment on a story about his resignation.

"You are a very creative writer," Lingner wrote. "It should be an interesting story since I haven't resigned." Really, one has to concede the point. And by press time Tuesday, Lingner still hadn't signed the agreement, even though the board's deadline had passed. He's objecting to the treatment he's received.

I couldn't help marveling at the refusal to play nice on the part of both the board (which clearly wants Lingner gone), and Lingner himself (who clearly doesn't get why he needs to go). And I couldn't help wondering what else is going on.

I broke the story of Lingner's transgression six weeks ago. Lingner was a longtime Phoenix city councilman, until term limits forced him out of that job in December 2007. After a few months of unemployment, he landed a surprising new gig as the housing authority's executive director.

I say "surprising" because local housing authorities are funded almost entirely by the federal government. The regulations governing their work, which involves managing low-income housing, are extremely complex. Lingner had absolutely no experience in that area. A former tile setter, his chief source of income at the time of his election to the city council was a disability check.

Yet the housing authority selected Lingner over dozens of qualified applicants, even as it expanded its mandate and tried to secure federal funds to go into the development business. That combination of bad decision-making and ambition ended in disaster.

Indeed, Lingner had been on the job less than two years when New Times published its investigation. The story detailed how Lingner had hired at least three family members in violation of agency bylaws. In 16 short months, he'd used his agency credit card for travel to Las Vegas, San Jose, and San Antonio. He'd also rung up bills at the Pinewood Country Club, outside Flagstaff, and at the Hotel Valley Ho and the Orange Table in Old Town Scottsdale.

And, under Lingner's watch, the housing authority funneled federal stimulus funds to the same firms that had supported him on the city council. He refused to answer my questions about how those firms were selected — saying it was the subject of an ongoing "investigation."

After New Times published my story, that investigation was shifted to look directly at Lingner. And that's when things got weird.

Maricopa County Manager David Smith, wisely, pushed the agency's board to take action. After Smith wrote a letter on behalf of the county supervisors, saying he "trusted" that Lingner had been placed on leave, the board voted to put Lingner on leave and investigate his actions.

The board specifically ordered Lingner to stay away from the office and have no direct contact with staffers. But even though the board meeting concluded in the early afternoon, Lingner continued to hang around the office until well after closing time. And, the next day, he actually showed up at a staff meeting and stood next to the interim director as she announced that he'd been placed on leave. So much for staying away from the office!

In light of all that, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by Lingner's non-resignation. This whole story has been screwy. I should hardly expect that to end now.

And Lingner — and the board — should hardly expect investigations into the housing authority to end simply because they've signed an "agreement." Rebecca Flanagan, field office director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Phoenix, confirmed that her agency is conducting a "review" of the agency; that review will continue regardless of who's in charge.

Meanwhile, the Reverend Oscar Tillman, who heads the Maricopa County NAACP, tells me he remains concerned. (Tillman represents Tania Huff, who was dismissed by the agency for, she was told, a lack of funds — even as Lingner hired his 17-year-old son.)

"This takes care of the problem he created," Tillman says of Lingner's resignation. "But there's a bigger problem here. Who's minding the store? The characters who brought him in there are still in charge."

The board of directors, after all, hired Lingner. It stood by him even as Tillman telephoned members incessantly.

And as I reported previously, Lingner may not be the only issue. The board's longtime chairman, Richard Cole, actually works out of the same North Phoenix office suite as Cherokee Development, a real estate firm the housing authority selected for stimulus work.

Working out of the same suite? Wayne Howard, who serves as a political point man for many developers in Phoenix. (Howard's "breakfast club" meetings are a major source of campaign cash for local politicos.) Howard partnered with developer Reid Butler to pitch a major project in downtown Phoenix last year — right around the same time that the housing authority chose Butler, along with developer Steve Ellman, to be "master developer" on a project seeking $97 million in federal stimulus funds.

No one is accusing these developers of wrongdoing, but the whole thing is a little too cozy for me. And it's even more troubling because the paper trail is incomplete.

The housing authority under Lingner used a "qualifications-based selection process" to select contractors and developers for stimulus work. That's how Cherokee Development, the firm that shares an office with Cole, was chosen: in response to a call for contractors, it submitted its qualifications and was found by agency evaluators to pass muster.

But so far, the agency has been unable to produce any such proposal from Butler or his partner.

In January, in fact, I used the public-records law to request all "qualifications-based" proposals received by the housing authority. I got a pile, but nothing from Ellman or Butler. I immediately put in a second request asking whether that was an oversight. I have yet to get a response, other than Lingner's vague reference to the matter being under "investigation."

Butler didn't respond to my request for comment, and Cole has not responded to repeated e-mails and phone calls. And so the question remains: Was Lingner a fool? Or was he a useful fool?

I can't imagine anyone hired Lingner thinking he'd thumb his nose at the agency's bylaws. I'm sure no one wanted him to do something so stupid as to give his son a job, even as experienced workers got the boot.

But someone, clearly, wanted Lingner running the housing authority. Lingner was famously the developers' go-to guy on the city council. Did those same developers think that, now that private funding has dried up, Lingner could be their entrée into the low-income housing game?

I have to wonder whether they overestimated Lingner's usefulness, even as they underestimated his stupidity. That may explain why he's being hustled out the door.

Unfortunately, though, the housing authority's organization makes such shenanigans all too easy. Maricopa County was in charge of the agency until, in 2004, it became a stand-alone entity.

Most board members today are surely well meaning, but they're busy. That forces them to rely on the good intentions of staffers. And they may have been far too trusting: Last August, Chairman Cole signed a resolution (apparently on the board's behalf) allowing Lingner to authorize contracts up to $100,000 without board approval.

Oscar Tillman is now calling for the county to take back the housing authority. It's the only way, he says, to give employees the protection they deserve.

He may be right about that, and I hope the powers that be in Maricopa County give that idea a hard look.

And I hope, in the meantime, that HUD takes a hard look at the agency's operations beyond its director. They might want to start by figuring out who lobbied for Lingner's hire — and whether they (or their friends) benefited from agency funds during his tenure.