By Donald Wittkowski
A sweeping management overhaul is planned at the Ocean City Housing Authority following a guilty plea in an embezzlement investigation involving its executive director and growing indications that the agency’s finances are in disarray.
The authority’s six-member board is expected to take steps during its meeting Tuesday to reform the agency, including the hiring of a new interim executive director and authorization for a forensic audit to examine all finances dating to 2012. The board also plans to hire an accounting firm to conduct the authority’s 2017 audit.
“I had suspicions that our finances were a mess,” said Bob Barr, who serves as chairman of the housing authority’s board and is also a city councilman
Barr plans to recommend the hiring of veteran housing official Jacqueline Jones to take over the authority on an interim basis. Barr said he has already spoken to the authority board members and they have indicated they will support Jones’ appointment.
“I believe she is the best person to help us get our feet back on the ground and to dig us out of the big hole we are in,” Barr said in an interview Monday.
Jones is the executive director of the Vineland Housing Authority and would take on the same role in Ocean City under a shared services agreement up for approval at Tuesday’s board meeting. As an interim executive director, Jones would be retained on a month-to-month contract amounting to $58,500 annually if she stayed the entire year, Barr said.
Barr touted Jones’ qualifications, saying that she maintains an “excellent reputation” with officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also said Jones formerly helped to clean up the troubled finances of the Buena Housing Authority, giving her the experience to undertake a similar task in Ocean City.
The Ocean City Housing Authority uses federal funds from HUD to provide affordable housing for low-income senior citizens, families and the disabled at its Pecks Beach Village and Bay View Manor facilities.
On May 8, the authority’s executive director, Alesia Watson, pleaded guilty to one count of embezzling HUD funds to pay credit card bills for personal expenses.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Watson misused two Ocean City Housing Authority credit cards to buy 69 MasterCard gift cards. The gift cards were used for personal expenses and were also shared by Watson with friends and family members, authorities said.
Watson then used HUD funds administered by the housing authority to pay off the credit card bills associated with her purchase of the gift cards, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Watson, 54, of Galloway Township, agreed to plead guilty in the case, admitting that between $6,500 and $15,000 was embezzled. She is scheduled for sentencing in federal court on Aug. 15 and faces a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Barr said he and other housing authority board members were unaware that Watson had been under investigation until her guilty plea was announced last week.
Starting in August 2013, Watson became the executive director of the Ocean City Housing Authority under a shared services agreement with the Brick Housing Authority, where she held the same position.
Barr said the authority’s board plans to terminate the shared services agreement with Brick on Tuesday, effectively getting rid of Watson to make way for Jones.
In March, Barr tried to have Watson removed after he grew suspicious of the authority’s finances, but was unable to win enough support then from his fellow board members.
Before she was hired in Ocean City, Watson had four previous theft convictions, according to a report in The Press of Atlantic City. She resigned her position as executive director of the Atlantic City Housing Authority in 2007 after the paper disclosed her criminal past.
Barr was unable to explain how Watson was hired in Ocean City, despite her previous theft convictions. He noted that he was not an authority board member at that time.
Since taking charge as board chairman this year, Barr has been examining the authority’s finances. He said he was surprised to learn in April that the housing authority, “all of a sudden,” owed an additional $141,000 to the city.
In all, the housing authority owes the city about $298,000, Barr said. The amount includes taxes and money that must be reimbursed to the city for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds that were used to help the authority following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Barr said.
Mayor Jay Gillian used his weekly address on the city’s website to mention the housing authority’s ongoing troubles.
“I’m disappointed to learn of this alleged crime, and I believe it’s important for the Housing Authority to move forward with a new executive director and new financial oversight of this federally funded housing program, Gillian said.
The mayor noted that the city has no oversight of the authority’s personnel or finances, but stressed that residents of Pecks Beach Village and Bay View Manor are an important part of the community.
Gillian explained that the city stepped in to help the housing authority when residents of Pecks Beach Village were displaced by Sandy and efforts to get them back into their homes stalled.
“Then, as now, I believe these citizens deserve better,” Gillian said. “I’m confident the current Housing Authority has the leadership to get the job done.”
The Ocean City Housing Authority board meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday on the fifth floor of the Bay View Manor on Sixth Street.