By Amy Julia Harris.
Each Saturday morning, a handyman is supposed to unlock a recreation room at the Richmond public housing complex called Friendship Manor.
On one December day last year, Jeffery Likely said it was his job. He told his bosses he opened the rec room at 8 a.m. and closed it at 5 p.m. He charged six hours of overtime for locking and unlocking one door.
But Allen Wheeler said he did the simple task of unlocking and locking that door at nearly the same times on the same day.
It wasn’t an isolated incident. The Richmond Housing Authority has paid tens of thousands of dollars in questionable overtime over the last four years to its two maintenance workers, a review of overtime records by The Center of Investigative Reporting has found.
They double-billed for the same job, charged overtime during normal work hours and regularly invoked a union clause to get paid triple for hours worked.
Almost 30 percent of the 2,800 hours of overtime that Wheeler billed in the last four years occurred during his normal work hours. Wheeler and Likely both charged overtime for opening or closing the rec room at nearly the same time on 10 occasions in 2013.
Top Richmond Housing Authority officials signed off on all the time sheets, some of which contain glaring problems. For example, nearly every day in March 2012, Wheeler charged six hours of overtime for six hours of work helping with maintenance work – his job description – from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. His regular shift runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
In the last four years, the housing authority paid Likely more than $67,000 in overtime. Wheeler received more than $58,000. They each make a base annual salary of $23,000 a year and live in housing authority apartments rent-free.
The totals are a sliver of the agency’s $26 million-a-year budget, but they highlight the persistent management troubles that have led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to label Richmond as one of the worst-run housing agencies in the country.
The agency is about $7 million in debt and has failed to provide basic maintenance to residents, who have lived among mice, mold and cockroaches. A lack of financial controls, meanwhile, allowed one top housing authority official to steer contracts to his brother and others to abuse agency credit cards.
While city officials have said the authority is getting its act together, the overtime problems underscore that the agency remains susceptible to abuse. Time sheets and other agency records show the overtime problems persisted into this year.
Wheeler and Likely declined to comment. The housing authority has forbidden its employees from talking to CIR.
Bill Lindsay, Richmond’s city manager, said the overtime was billed incorrectly.
“What it has shown is that they’re pretty sloppy with how they’re filling out their time sheets,” Lindsay said. “We’re having meetings to sort all this out.”
The housing authority changed its overtime policy after CIR brought the billing problems to Lindsay’s attention. In an April 23 memo, Executive Director Tim Jones banned Wheeler and Likely from receiving extra pay during their normal shifts and limited the amount of money they can charge for being called back to work.
Judy Nadler, a government ethics specialist, said that in the best-case scenario, the overtime problems are the result of messy recordkeeping. At worst, she said, they show a pattern of abuse.
“When it is taxpayer money, every dollar, every penny counts,” Nadler said. “They can’t afford to have this lack of oversight.”
Meanwhile, Likely has billed the agency for hundreds of overtime hours for driving an agency vehicle despite not having a valid driver’s license. His license has been suspended on and off since September 2012, once for drunken driving after registering a blood alcohol level of 0.22, nearly three times the legal limit. It is still suspended. His aunt, Kathleen Jones, bailed him out of jail, records show. She’s the No. 2 official at the housing agency.
Likely went on to clock 27 hours of overtime specifically for driving between the agency’s apartment complexes while his license was suspended. Most of the 500-plus hours of overtime he has billed since his license was revoked require driving.
A valid driver’s license is one of the few job requirements for a housing authority maintenance worker.
From 5 to 6 p.m., Likely often finished the workday by sweeping and cleaning up around one of the five public housing complexes he maintains, according to his time sheets.
Each time, he got paid for three hours of work.
Normally, workers at the Richmond Housing Authority receive time and a half for each hour of overtime. But if they’re called back to work after going home, they get a minimum of three hours per call – a clause known as call-back pay. The rules apply even if workers live on-site as Likely does.
Lisa Stephenson, Richmond’s human resources director, used a street flood to illustrate why the benefit exists. “Call-back pay is when public works folks have gone home and then need to come back to respond to the flooding,” she said.
Likely and Wheeler frequently used this union rule to bill for routine maintenance. Lindsay said call-back pay should not apply to regular maintenance work.
Almost every week in the last four years, Likely charged three hours of overtime for cleaning the agency office for one hour. He also regularly charged triple the time he put in for sweeping the housing project where he lives, emptying dumpsters and assisting the agency with routine housing inspections after his normal shift.
Much of Likely’s overtime was done at Nevin Plaza, the housing complex where he lives, records show.
Wheeler, who lives at Triangle Court, appeared to regularly invoke call-back pay when he continued working after his shift ended. He stayed at work an extra half-hour and charged three hours of call-back time for maintenance work. It should have been billed as regular overtime.
And there were other questionable charges, like billing overtime for performing maintenance at different places at the same time.
On Feb. 17, 2012, Likely said he was inspecting an apartment while also responding to a call from 5 to 6 p.m. He charged three hours of overtime for each job.
On May 27, 2013, Likely double-billed the housing authority for cleaning the same apartment complex from 6 to 7 p.m., charging six hours of overtime for working one hour, according to agency records.
In his memo, Tim Jones said Wheeler and Likely now are limited to charging three hours of call-back pay when they receive multiple calls in the same three-hour window after hours.
The overtime charges violate the city’s policies, but it’s unclear whether they break any laws. That would likely depend on whether the men knowingly deceived the housing authority or simply misunderstood union rules, current and former prosecutors said.
Lindsay said there could be an explanation for Wheeler billing during his regular work hours. It’s possible, he said, that Wheeler could at times have been entitled to a 5 percent pay bump per day for doing work outside his normal job description. But Wheeler was instead billing the government for full extra hours and sometimes triple the time put in.
At least one of the three top officials at the housing authority signed off on all the overtime: Tim Jones, Kathleen Jones or William Bounthon, a manager in the Section 8 department.
In February, a CIR investigation revealed a history of leadership problems at the agency and squalid living conditions for residents of its two largest housing complexes. Since then, Kathleen Jones, who is not related to Tim Jones, has been on paid leave. Likely has been out on sick leave for several weeks.
The city has asked HUD for permission to relocate the residents of its largest and worst complex, Hacienda. Private attorneys are working with residents to file claims for health problems and property damage.
Originally posted at the Center for Investigative Reporting.
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.