Official indifference

Official indifference

Is breathtakingly slow and incompetent government even government at all?

One of the biggest state scandals in the last 25 years continues to play out in deep southern Illinois, and most Illinoisans have never heard a thing about it.

It involves sickening racial discrimination, and the stunning misuse and theft of taxpayer dollars.

Of course, the first two outrages could not have happened without the third — a lethargic federal bureaucracy that did its best to ignore the whole thing and largely succeeded until a local newspaper uncovered internal documents dating back to 2013 that revealed that federal housing officials knew exactly what was happening in Alexander County and did nothing about it.

Starting in 2015, the Southern Illinoisan newspaper in Carbondale pulled back the curtain on the rampant mismanagement and thefts at the Alexander County Housing Authority as well as the extent to which the authority's local managers allowed squalid conditions at public housing complexes, which were exclusively occupied by poor blacks, to go unaddressed.

Officials at U.S. Housing and Urban Development moved in February 2016 to take control of the county's housing authority, firing its five-member board.

Last week, HUD filed civil complaints of fraud against the agency's two previous executive directors — James Wilson of Cairo and Martha Franklin of Thebes — seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties for mishandling public money.

But it seems too little, too late — given the difficulty the government will have collecting any judgment it receives.

Civil charges against these two barely scratch the surface of the financial mismanagement disclosed in newspaper reports.

That raises an important question — does the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Illinois intend to do anything about what transpiredhere?

Federal officials filed a 45-page civil complaint that alleges Wilson and Franklin used federal housing dollars for travel and gifts and covered the expenditures by falsifying documents.

HUD is seeking $908,000 in civil penalties against both of them. It's seeking another nearly $294,000 in civil penalties against Franklin and $15,000 more against Wilson.

The money that disappeared is, however, just a small piece of this sickening pie. What's outrageous is the housing authority diverted public funds to its managers and employees that should have gone to maintaining and repairing two complexes — the Elmwood and McBride properties — that have been slated for demolition because they are uninhabitable.

This behavior went on for years with the housing authority's federal overseers taking minimal action to correct problems they discovered. The extent of the mismanagement was revealed in a 2013 federal audit of the agency, an audit that sparked no action until the newspaper unearthed it two years later.

In standing idly by, federal officials presided over a gross disservice to residents of these two housing projects, something for which they have since profusely apologized.

But that doesn't cut it, not even when HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who took over as the agency's leader eight months ago, traveled to Cairo to meet with residents and discuss the many years of problems there.

The story here — one of bureaucratic indifference — is not a rare one. Government agencies like HUD operate on their own time and their own priorities. If something important doesn't get done this week, well, it can always wait a year or two.

Would the people of Alexander County still be waiting for action if the Southern Illinoisanhadn't dug up the story and pursued it with such zeal? The feds, no doubt, would say no, that they were just on the verge of taking swift and decisive action when the newspaper story hit the streets.

But common sense says otherwise. Power without accountability does not present a pretty picture. In this case, it's even uglier than the squalid conditions in which the poorest of the poor lived in Alexander County's public housing.

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