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Bowser’s new chair of D.C. public housing board did not pay $15,000 in taxes, records show

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/19/2021 Paul Schwartzman

The new chair of the D.C. board that oversees public housing failed to pay more than $15,000 in income taxes over a multiyear span, a delinquency that resulted in the government placing a lien on any current or future property she owns, District records show.

The bylaws governing the Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners prohibit appointees from owing “any past due taxes.”

Dionne Bussey-Reeder, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) appointee to the board, replaced Neil Albert as chair after he resigned in October when it was disclosed that he had awarded contracts to his girlfriend’s design firm.

[As Bowser launches reelection bid, her high-profile appointee is under fire]

“I don’t have to discuss my finances,” Bussey-Reeder said when asked about the lien, adding that she was paying down her debt. “I have a legitimate payment plan with the District of Columbia.”

In a subsequent text, Bussey-Reeder wrote: “My personal finances have no bearings on my ability to operate in this leadership capacity.”

As the new board chair, Bussey-Reeder stepped into a key role at an agency where the mission — servicing 50,000 low-income residents and voucher holders in 65 properties — has taken on new urgency as federal funding has declined and housing prices have soared.

Among the board’s tasks is to preside over the redevelopment and rehabilitation of more than a dozen properties into mixed-income communities, a process that involves evaluating the executive director and reviewing and authorizing complex contracts valued at $250,000 or more.

Bussey-Reeder, who chaired her first meeting Nov. 10, has failed to pay at least $15,275 in taxes and interest spread out in various amounts in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2016, according to a record of the lien registered by the city on Feb. 24, 2020.

David Umansky, a spokesman for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, said he was prohibited from confirming the existence of individual payment plans for tax debts. Tony Robinson, a Housing Authority spokesperson, declined to comment.

LaToya Foster, a spokeswoman for Bowser, did not respond to questions about Bussey-Reeder’s lien.

Her tax debt is not the only evidence of her financial difficulties.

Bussey-Reeder also owed more than $16,000 to her former landlord who evicted her restaurant, Cheers @ The Big Chair, from an Anacostia storefront in March 2019, according to a complaint the landlord’s attorney filed in D.C. Superior Court.

Judge Kelly A. Higashi ruled in favor of the landlord, the Curtis Property Management Corp.

By Aug. 30, 2021, her debt to the landlord had reached $26,665, including attorney fees and interest, according to court records.

Bussey-Reeder declined to discuss the unpaid rent except to say her salary at her job running a nonprofit would be garnished beginning Friday.

“Like so many other Americans, I have had my share of financial challenges, both professional and personal, which I have worked tirelessly to resolve,” Bussey-Reeder wrote in her text. “Fortunately, we live in a country of second chances.”

Many difficulties at agency

In recent months, the agency has been jolted by troubles, including the departure of its former executive director, Tyrone Garrett; a more than $2 billion maintenance backlog; and a failure to abide by federal deadlines for remediating asbestos hazards.

After Albert’s abrupt resignation in October, the U.S. attorney’s office issued a criminal subpoena to the Housing Authority for records pertaining to him and Moya Design Partners, the firm owned by his girlfriend, Paola Moya. Albert’s awarding of the contracts and ties to Moya were first reported by Jeffrey Anderson, a reporter who runs the District Dig website.

[U.S. attorney’s office issues criminal subpoenas to D.C. Housing Authority]

The mayor appoints seven of 13 members on the Housing Authority board and selects the chair. The commissioners include the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, now John Falcicchio, who serves as an ex officio member, giving Bowser’s appointees majority control.

By law, the board also includes a council-appointed commissioner, a seat that is vacant, and another chosen by the central labor council, now occupied by Ann Hoffman, who has worked as a labor lobbyist and attorney. Another commissioner is selected by the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers. That seat is held by Bill Slover, a principal in a real estate investment and consulting firm who is in his second stint on the board.

Three board seats also are reserved for Housing Authority residents.

While Albert was still chair, the mayor’s appointees in August voted to extend for two years Garrett’s replacement, then-interim executive director Brenda Donald, despite objections from advocates who questioned her lack of experience managing public housing or real estate.

Donald previously served as Bowser’s director of the Child and Family Services Agency.

Albert was the second Bowser appointee to the board to depart under duress. The first, Joshua Lopez, who was paid nearly $60,000 as a Bowser campaign consultant in 2014, resigned in 2018 after organizing a rally that included a speaker who made antisemitic remarks.

Bussey-Reeder, who joined the board in March, is among three current Bowser appointees who are the mayor’s political allies.

One of those appointees, LeJuan Strickland, who owns a consulting company, was the deputy campaign manager on her 2014 mayoral bid; another, Jose Ortiz-Gaud, who owns a commercial flooring company, has contributed thousands of dollars to her campaigns and the inaugural celebration after her 2014 victory, campaign finance records show.

All three oversee businesses and organizations that have received D.C. government contracts and funding since Bowser took office in 2015 and while they have served on the board.

The bylaws governing the Housing Authority’s board do not prohibit commissioners’ businesses or organizations from obtaining D.C. contracts or taxpayer-funded grants. But government watchdogs question whether appointees can be independent if their professional livelihoods, at least in part, are shaped by funding provided by the city.

“It encroaches heavily on their independence,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit public advocacy organization. “This goes beyond being an appointee. This goes to your livelihood being manipulated by the mayor. Your actions in that position are being guided by what the mayor wants.”

Strickland said his company, Metropolitan Strategies and Solutions, is “completely separate” from what he does on the board and described himself as an independent voice. “I’m very objective and very opinionated,” Strickland said. “Nobody ever said you’d better vote like this. We have very few conversations about how to vote.”

Ortiz-Gaud did not respond to a phone message or an email.

Foster, Bowser’s spokesperson, said the mayor “seeks diverse” nominees “who have a variety of professional backgrounds and experiences.”

“Board members are not prohibited from working with D.C. government agencies,” she said. “In fact, their experience and knowledge serving D.C. residents contributes to their roles on the Board of Commissioners.”

Foster also said Bowser has long been committed to government transparency, introducing legislation when she was on the council that created an ethics board. She said Bowser supported initiatives to facilitate public access to officials’ financial disclosure statements and information about government contracts.

At various points, members of the D.C. Council, which confirms the mayor’s nominees, have criticized Bowser’s choices, saying they lack experience in the development and management of public housing and real estate.

Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), for example, described as “reprehensible” the mayor’s nomination of Lopez, who had no professional background in public housing. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) also has raised questions about the qualifications of Bussey-Reeder, Strickland and Ortiz-Gaud. A majority of council members voted to confirm all three.

No one on the council, at least initially, questioned the appointment of Albert, a former city administrator and deputy mayor who has experience negotiating real estate deals.

At Albert’s 2017 confirmation hearing, council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), chair of the housing committee, asked what she described as “standard confirmation questions,” including whether he had “outstanding liabilities for taxes,” either local or federal.

He said he did not.

Three years later, during Bussey-Reeder’s hearing, Bonds never asked the question.

Ties to the mayor

In 2018, Bowser endorsed Bussey-Reeder when she ran to unseat Silverman on the council. The mayor described Bussey-Reeder as someone who can “bring people together from across eight wards” and encouraged her donors to contribute to her campaign.

She lost.

After Albert’s departure as chair, Bowser chose Bussey-Reeder to replace him. By then, she was executive director of the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative (FSFSC), a nonprofit social services organization.

For most of the past decade, records show, FSFSC has received millions of dollars in funding from agencies such as Child and Family Services and Victim Services, as well as the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

Since Bussey-Reeder joined the board in March, FSFSC has received $853,000 from the mayor’s office and more than $1 million from the deputy mayor, according to D.C.’s Contracts and Procurement Transparency Portal.

Bussey-Reeder described questions about the government contracts and the commissioners’ ties to the mayor as a “witch hunt.” “We are a united board,” she said.

Strickland, who was Bowser’s choice to replace Lopez on the board, earned $33,000 on the mayor’s 2014 campaign, campaign finance records show. Strickland also earned nearly $40,000 as a consultant on the 2010 mayoral campaign of Bowser’s mentor, Adrian Fenty.

From 2015 to 2018, Strickland worked as chief of staff at the District’s Department of Employment Services, according to the résumé he submitted to the council during his confirmation hearing.

By then, Strickland, an officer in the D.C. National Guard, had formed his consulting company, which advises “small businesses and government clients in the areas of diversity inclusion, business development, project management, community outreach, and organizational design,” according to his Housing Authority biography.

In 2020, according to the transparency portal, Strickland’s company was awarded a $941,000 contract from the employment services agency — the same agency he had recently left. The contract was to perform “data analytics” for the paid family leave program.

“We are the best in that business in the city,” he said.

Strickland’s company also received $845,000 from the deputy mayor’s office to market Stay DC, a program to help tenants avoid eviction, including those in units managed by the Housing Authority. Strickland said he won the Stay DC contract after a competitive bidding process.

Ortiz-Gaud owns Allstate Floors of DC, a company that was awarded contracts by the Department of General Services before and after Bowser nominated him. Allstate also has done work for the Department of Corrections, the D.C. National Guard and the council.

At one time, he employed Lopez, who worked as the director of business development at Allstate Floors, according to Lopez’s LinkedIn page.

Lopez and Fenty also have been listed as officers of Run Hope Work, a nonprofit founded by Ortiz-Gaud in 2014 that trains at-risk youngsters in running, meditation and vocational skills, according to the organization’s tax filings.

The following year, Bowser nominated Ortiz-Gaud to the Housing Authority board. Since 2017, the Bowser administration has granted Run Hope Work more than $500,000 in funding, the preponderance of it from the city’s employment services agency, according to the transparency portal.

The organization also received $65,000 from the mayor’s office and at least $70,000 from the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs, records show.

Ortiz-Gaud, who is listed as Run Hope Work’s president, has received no compensation for his work with the organization, according to the tax filings.

Dionne Bussey-Reeder, left, is Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s appointee to lead the D.C. Housing Authority board. © Rachel Chason/The Washington Post Dionne Bussey-Reeder, left, is Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s appointee to lead the D.C. Housing Authority board.

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