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South Bend Housing Authority Director Says Agency Should Be More Transparent After Fraud Charges

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Justin Hicks
/
WVPE

 

 

Earlier this week, the South Bend Housing Authority’s former executive director was indicted on federal fraud charges, along with former employees and contractors. Now, officials and activists are calling for transparency within the organization. 

 

The indictment comes after the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the housing authority offices in 2019.

 

According to court documents, former director Tonya Robinson and four others allegedly created and cashed fake payments checks – totaling over $5.8 million – for maintenance work that didn’t occur. The contractors allegedly kicked back a portion of that money to the housing authority employees. 

 

“The level of what was charged – fraud and corruption – is just simply unacceptable and erodes the trust of our public institutions,” South Bend Mayor James Mueller said Thursday. “But we’ve got a new director now, and she’s making every effort to turn the ship around.” 

 

Catherine Lamberg officially took leadership of the housing authority at the beginning of 2021. She said the first thing she did was put the agency’s board of commissioners through a “pretty rigorous” series of trainings. 

 

“They have to understand the aspects of the agency and how it operates,” Lambeg said. “Particularly, the financials, so they know the appropriate questions that they need to ask and know when something looks kind of off-base or out of balance.”

 

Lamberg said the agency has hired a new chief financial officer and independent auditor, and is improving its procurement and financial reporting procedures so that no one person is making final decisions. 

 

But, she said “opening lines of communication” with the broader community will also be necessary to regain trust.

 

“It’s not a one-sided solution,” Lamberg said. “It has to be a holistic solution that is inclusive of the residents, the community, the city and the housing authority.”

 

Rodney Gadson is president of the South Bend Tenant Association, which advocates for low-income residents in the city. He said even though Lamberg has made some good changes, residents are going to need more than that. 

 

“Transparency goes a long way,” Gadson said. “Once you get accountability and answers, you need an action plan.”

 

Gadson said residents need the housing authority to develop a concrete plan to address and improve their current living situation, rather than “putting bandages over bullet wounds.”

 

“We haven't heard that from the city or the housing authority. Where is that plan?” Gadson said. “What is it that is transparent, [that] I can hold onto as a tenant, so I can trust you?”

 

He also called for more city oversight of the housing authority, and for board members who served under its last director to resign.

 

According to the federal indictment, former Executive Director Tonya Robinson and four others face one count of conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, six counts of bank fraud and two counts of wire fraud. 

 

Tonya Robinson, her daughter Tyreisha Robinson and the housing authority’s former asset manager, Albert Smith, were also charged with federal program theft. Tyreisha Robinson faces an additional charge for theft of government money.

 

The contractors facing charges are Archie Robinson III, owner of KTR Kleaning to Renovations, and Ronald Taylor, Jr., owner of A Taylor Made Handy Man.

 

Court documents say the fraudulent checks were partially funded by “drawdown” requests made by the housing authority to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

 

They say the defendants obtained the money “for their own personal use and benefit,” and that Tonya Robinson and Albert Smith allegedly lost $600,000 and $450,000, respectively, at local casinos. 

 

Tonya Robinson, Albert Smith, Tyreisha Robinson and Archie Robinson, III are scheduled to appear in court on Friday.

 

Contact Gemma atgdicarlo@wvpe.orgor follow her on Twitter at@gemma_dicarlo.

 

If you appreciate this kind of journalism on your local NPR station, please support it by donating here. 

Gemma DiCarlo comes to Indiana by way of Athens, Georgia. She graduated from the University of Georgia in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and certificates in New Media and Sustainability. She has radio experience from her time as associate producer of Athens News Matters, the flagship public affairs program at WUGA-FM.