Smith, Stanford under fire as Franklin, Anderson call for COVID housing aid audits
The infamous “John David” list of county officials allegedly targeted by allies of suspended Sheriff Victor Hill has seen two more of those names come under attack.
Chief Operating Officer Detrick Stanford, who, like former Chief Financial Officer Ramona Bivins, received county-paid tuition, is the subject of an Open Records Request from an anonymous Gmail account calling itself “Concerned Citizen.” The person or persons behind this latest mass e-mail chain filed a broad request for “all documents showing college degrees or college credits paid for with Clayton County funds for former CFO Ramona Bivens [sic], COO Detrick Stanford, Chairman Jeff Turner, Secretary [sic] Katrina Holloway, Chief Kevin Roberts or any other county employees that had their degrees paid for by county funds.”
Who’s on the original “John David” e-mail list?
Former CFO Ramona Bivins, COO Detrick Stanford, Police Chief Kevin Roberts, Community Development Director Patrick Ejike, Parks and Recreation Director Troy Hodges, Chief Strategy Officer Chalonda Smith, and Human Resources Director Pamela Ambles.
Notably absent was new Interim Chief of Staff and Fire Chief Landry Merkison.
Katrina Holloway, who is Turner’s assistant, was not on the original list.
The Clayton Crescent made contact with “John David,” who has refused to identify themselves.
None of the other pseudonymous e-mail senders apparently allied with Franklin and the Victor Hill faction have responded to our requests for direct contact nor have they identified themselves to The Clayton Crescent.
The requestor paid $1,738.50 for four years’ worth of “expenditures authorized…without board approval” by Chairman Jeff Turner, Bivins, and Stanford—an amount someone familiar with the Open Records Act likely would not have paid for the eight pages, even taking staff time into account, that “Concerned Citizen” then forwarded to the e-mail chain.
The sender also attached seven cropped pages of tuition invoices, fees, and reimbursements for Stanford (about $4,300 a semester) from the University of Georgia and Bivins (about $12,000 a semester) from Vanderbilt University.
“We also noted that this audit also showed a document with COO Detrick Stanford as the sole signer without any of the other required signatures on the form,” wrote “Concerned Citizen.” The document shows that Stanford signed the first line, which reads, “I certify that the amounts set forth on this expense report were expensed by me and used for the purpose stated for the benefit of Clayton County.” Other signatures that would go on the form include those of supervisor, department head, chief financial officer, and chairman. Both Stanford and Bivins submitted individual expenses well below the $74,999 that would require board approval. “Concerned Citizen” did not include the full audit from which these pages allegedly were taken:
The sender also forwarded cropped screen shots of the payment receipt, apparently unaware that their receipt also is a public record:
The Clayton Crescent has filed an Open Records Request to determine who paid for “Concerned Citizen”‘s $1,738.50 ORR.
Meanwhile, Chief Strategy Officer Dr. Chalonda Smith, who is in charge of relationships with nonprofit contractors that distribute COVID-19 housing relief funds, was hauled into a disciplinary hearing on September 7, according to a memo Smith sent to Stanford and cc’d to Turner obtained by The Clayton Crescent.
In that memo, Smith emphasized, “As I stated in my disciplinary meeting held on September 7, 2022, at NO POINT was the statement of the problem TRUE!” According to Smith’s memo, which “serves as a formal notice to reply to the disciplinary action from CSR 9.206 (K)-incompetent, negligent, or inefficient performance in the duties of position held,” several questions came up during the hearing, and Smith said she had answered them all. Below is a memo with a timeline Smith provided on August 30:
In her written response to the disciplinary hearing the following week, Smith explains that ACF makes court-approved payments directly to landlords (not tenants) already in the eviction process, while Hearts to Nourish Hope [HTNH, or H2NH in Smith’s report] handles non-evictions and late or past-due rent that has not yet gone to eviction.
You get an audit, and you get an audit, and…
Just before the BOC’s August 31 special called meeting, Franklin added two items. One was a request “for a federal and state audit investigation into all funds spent by the Africa’s Children’s Fund on behalf of Clayton and the ERAP program, with relation to the 9 million dollars of federal funds awarded.” That resolution passed 4 to 1, with Turner opposing.
Franklin called for a state and federal audit of ACF’s handling of ERAP funds. However, the U.S. Department of Treasury already requires quarterly audits from both state and local recipients, according to its reporting guidance for ERAP funds.
Both ACF and HTNH also pointed out to The Clayton Crescent that this mandatory federal reporting is already in place.
At the August 31 special called meeting, District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis asked, “With an organization that is distributing money on behalf of the county, don’t we keep reported records of that? With our accounting department? Or Finance?”
Turner added, “And I believe we also have a right to audit at any time.”
“That’s correct,” Davis said.
“And do conduct audits,” Turner replied.
“I’m just curious,” Davis asked, “Do we have that report?”
“That I could not tell you offhand,” Turner said, “or when the last time they were audited.”
“I know when we took the vote, there was no financial information given,” Franklin said, with Anderson assenting. “And based upon this document, that should have been provided. And there was none.”
Anderson asked, “I know we’re gonna audit. I guess with this company, the Africa’s Children’s Fund, how do we get—I wanna see what they’ve done so far, as far as, not just with the audit, but an immediate feedback of who they’ve given money to for rental assistance and things of that nature. I want immediate feedback. I know you asked for the audit, but I’d like to see what they’ve done as of now.”
Reed said, “That actually will come up. Some of that information will come to you in a minute when I talk about the Emergency Rental Program issue.”
We found the schedule of when those reports are due:
In addition, the Treasury Department also provides performance measures of how those funds are distributed, such as number of households aided and applicant acceptance rate:
Franklin wanted to discuss whether or not the board had acted ultra vires, a legal term meaning “outside the scope of its authority,” when it approved ACF’s participation.
“In short, the board properly exercises its contractual power in an open meeting, where the vote is public, the contract is presented in the minutes, its approval is by a majority vote after a motion and second, and in an area where it has the authority to act,” Reed explained.
Reed outlined the history of the county’s ERAP fund distribution:
- Georgia reallocated ERA money:
- $6 million: GMEN (Georgia Micro Enterprise Network)
- $2.1 million: Africa’s Children’s Fund
- Of that $8.1 million total, 9.89% went to administrative costs, Reed said.
- Contract IFQ 21-47 involved an “informal quote” on distributing ERA 2A and 2B funds
- On July 6, 2021, the BOC voted 4-0 to approve the contract. Turner moved to accept; Davis seconded. Franklin abstained, according to this note: “Commissioner Franklin abstained due to lack of information to vote on the item. Due to the official rules, the vote tally must count this initial abstention as in favor.”
- Contract SP 2022-178 was for a “special purchase”
- On July 19, 2022, the BOC voted 3-1 to approve the purchase. Davis moved to accept; Turner seconded. Franklin voted no; Anderson was absent.
- To distribute up to $9 million, the board authorized $405,000 in administrative fees percentages:
- up to 10% for ERA1
- up to 15% for ERA2
Smith: ACF, HTNH were audited
“I would like to go on record to state that both vendors received internal audits between November 2021 and December 2021 as this was not only a new program for the county, but for the Department of Treasury as FAQ’s change frequently,” Smith wrote in her memo. “Each vendor receives a close-out audit when the program and contract end. A close out was completed on H2NH between May and June 2022. The audit reported over $300,000 in uncleared checks. The audit recommended that all uncleared checks be processed with a stop payment
and return all funds to the county.”
According to Smith, “A meeting was held with H2NH in which the internal audit agreed to a scheduled meeting onsite to review H2NH financials to close out uncleared checks. During this time, H2NH’s attorney sent an email to the county. A meeting was held between Finance, Internal Audit, OPM [Office of Program Management], and the Chief Staff Attorney to provide the Staff Attorney with appropriate information and documentation to respond. As of September 12, 2022; not sure the status of the balance owed to County by H2NH. (Disclaimer: By federal guidelines, a grantee MUST report fraud excess of $100,000 to OIG [Office of the Inspector General]).”
“I believe this disciplinary action is harsh and unjust. In my professional career with the county (June 2019), I have NEVER had a disciplinary action with such a severe plan of action against me while working in a hostile work environment. I would like to request an appeal; however, I’m not civil service protected but written up under a civil service rule as a guideline. What are the consequences for such an infraction, can that be provided to me?”
Smith said her punishment was unfair, alluding to the “John David” hit list: “Several emails have been going around the county stating that I’m on a list (removal of my position) that was generated by three commissioners [Franklin, Anderson, and Hambrick].”
She also questioned why the county does not audit all its aid programs: “The BOC approved ACF and H2NH additional funding with Community Development (recently); however, an audit was only requested with ACF for rental assistance. If there were concerns about any county organization, why not audit all county-supervised programs?”
Smith continued, “Also, if an organization owes (alleged) the county over $300,000, why would the BOC approve additional funding? I have provided all parties with information prior to BOC approving additional funds. However, you stated that I acted with incompetency and negligence. Please explain.”
Follow the money
On July 25, Hearts to Nourish Hope’s Deborah Anglin wrote Turner a lengthy response to the county’s managerial audit, enclosing a copy of the audit with HTNH’s responses, and complaining that the county “is refusing to pay” for work done through HTNH’s March contract extension. The county had asked HTNH to distribute an additional $900,000, on top of the $7 million it already had given to people affected by COVID-19. In January, Anglin said she had called Smith while out of town, who allegedly told Anglin “that she knew nothing about the contract extension that was sent to Hearts on January 19, 2022” and that she “was unable to answer any questions about the contract extension.” In her absence, HTNH’s COO signed the contract due to the county’s urgent need and laid off some staff, but never got a copy of the signed contract “until requested at the meeting on July 13, 2022.”
Anglin asked Turner about the contract about January 22. Two days later, according to Anglin, Turner set up a meeting with himself, Anglin, Reed, and Smith, who allegedly said HTNH did not get paid for the contract extension because it had not disbursed the original amount of $7.9 million.
Anglin wrote, “Hearts was informed by [former Clayton County CFO Ramona Bivins] and the County Grants Manager that there was a total of $7.9 million in the ERA 1 Grant to expend. [Stanford] disagreed with this and told Hearts that there was only $7 million in funding for ERA assistance.” Anglin said that HTNH had been trying to get paid since January.
Smith and Anglin also disputed whether the Apricot or Neighborly software was to be used for tracking applicants. According to Anglin, “neither Apricot [n]or Neighborly was set up as the financial audit tracking system. Both databases were set up for application processing. Neighborly was used as a way for processing applications but not financial auditing record keeping….Only the County finance department had access to approval of disbursement of payments in Neighborly yet the [county] audit is stating that this was an issue of concern for Hearts’ program management.” Conflict over the workflow added to the problem of disbursing hundreds of applications.
Anglin said Smith never specifically requested HTNH’s bank reconciliations, so any comments about those “should not be included in the audit report, especially in a negative way.” The charity provided its own independent audit, which Anglin says “confirms that funds were handled within federal guidelines for all Hearts programs.” As for about $375,ooo in uncleared or returned checks, Anglin wrote that about $123,000 is still outstanding and that the county knew this because it already had reallocated about $252,000 of those funds: “It is out of Heats control if landlords accept and/or deposit the checks provided.”
Charities caught in the crossfire
“I can account for every penny,” Victor Mbaba told The Clayton Crescent in a recent interview. He added that ACF regularly runs reports on how much money it has disbursed on behalf of Magistrate Court and to how many clients, and provided The Clayton Crescent with a sample when we asked for one:
One housing charity that has not come under attack in these e-mail chains and meetings is GMEN, the Georgia Micro Enterprise Network. Its officers include CEO Elizabeth Wilson, CFO Charles Jones, and secretary Alex Yacoub. The organization is based in Atlanta—a criticism that had been leveled against ACF—at 504 Fair Street SW, which is the site of the Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs, a business incubator for Black-owned businesses that was founded by the H.J. Russell family. Wilson told VoyageATL that GMEN represents “over 8,000 micro, small and agribusinesses” across Georgia.
GMEN’s website notes that it works in “collaboration with Clayton County to provide mortgage & rental assistance payment assistance to residents negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.” It offers the same services—handling ERAP applications for help with rent and utilities—in Henry County, Chatham County, and Union City.
On Tuesday morning, we asked Wilson to comment on the intricacies of managing public aid programs like ERAP and whether her group’s experience working with Clayton County mirrors those of Hearts to Nourish Hope and Africa’s Children’s fund. We’ll update this story when we hear back.
Watch the full discussion of COVID-19 housing aid:
The other was a request “for board discussion and vote on whether the contract with Africa’s Children’s Fund is Ultra Vires based on the conflict of interest.” During that discussion, County Attorney Charles Reed offered a PowerPoint explaining “Ultra Vires definition, Robert’s Rules of Order, ERA FAQs, Open Meetings Act, Sec. 70-80 (n) of the Board of Ethics code, ERAP approvals (no more than 10% of ERA 1 and ERA 2 funds).” Chief Magistrate Judge Keisha Wright Hill, who rules on eviction cases and who provides space in her office for ACF’s administrative duties, also explained the process, despite some initial resistance from Franklin. Wright Hill also offered clarification during the public comment period.
At the next meeting, Anderson said she thought it had been inappropriate for Wright Hill to address the BOC.
When landlords take a tenant to court for eviction, Wright Hill’s office provides workspace for contractors (whether ACF or GMEN) to deal directly with filing paperwork so that the county can cut each landlord a check. No funds go directly to tenants and the only funds that the contractors receive are their percentage from the county for administering the paperwork, which is hefty.
Franklin moved and Anderson seconded to hold a resolution “to apply for and accept additional Emergency Rental Assistance Program grant funds in the amount of up to $6,564,101.81 from the United States Department of Treasury Consolidated Appropriations, 2021.” (Before the meeting had officially been called to order, but before a quorum was present, Anderson had told Turner she wanted to pull that item and two others from the agenda.)
Turner asked Franklin how long she wanted to hold the resolution.
“I would say indefinitely at this point,” she replied. “We’re gonna have to come back with a date.”
Reed asked, “You just want to remove it from the agenda altogether?”
“Until we’re prepared to do the date,” Franklin said. “I tell you what—”
“Commissioner, if it’s OK, if it’s the board’s pleasure, you can bring it back to the next board meeting, and if we’re still not ready, just, let’s just table it,” Stanford suggested. “‘Cause I don’t know if there is a date for which you have to apply if we want to move forward. So the worst-case scenario, if we bring it to the next board meeting, and we’re still not ready, table it again.”
“OK, I’m clear,” Franklin replied. “So then we will hold that item until September 20, the following board meeting. I amend my motion to.”
Turner called for a second, which Anderson offered. The motion passed unanimously.
Franklin and one of the pseudonymous e-mailers also have alleged that Turner should have declared a conflict of interest and abstained from voting to hire ACF.
The issue centered around what Mbaba said was a mistake on ACF’s website, which listed Turner as a member of its advisory board. Turner actually had served on a host committee for a fundraiser. Turner told The Clayton Crescent was more of an honorary role, not a policymaking one. He added that he did not see it as a conflict of interest, that other commissioners worked closely with community organizations and boards, and asked whether Franklin should recuse herself from voting on matters like the Boys and Girls Club or projects with The ATL, where she serves as vice-chair.
“I know it doesn’t fit into Commissioner Franklin’s narrative or agenda,” Turner said during the meeting, “but I’mma say it once again: I have no affiliation, I never sat on any advisory board, or on the board, of the Africa’s Children’s Fund. And the old adage goes, ‘Can’t always believe what you read.’ So if proper due diligence and research was done, then people would know that. So I just wanted to make it absolutely clear to everyone that I did not divulge any relationship because there was none. If I’m guilty of supporting an organization, then yeah, I’m guilty. Of supporting organizations. Because anybody who does great and good work in Clayton County and helps our citizens, I’m going to be supportive of that organization. So I just wanted to make sure that I said that.”
Franklin replied that “We received information from citizens, and I think I see a couple in the audience, asking about it,” and that, “at the time of the vote, your name was listed [on ACF’s website] as a board member.” She did not identify who in the audience had asked about Turner’s involvement with ACF, nor did she explain what due diligence she had undertaken to confirm or deny the information.
Reed explained that the BOC had no authority to punish Turner over voting for ACF, and that any question of whether Turner had committed an ethics violation would have to go to the county Ethics Board. While the Ethics Board can make recommendations to the BOC, the board does not have any obligation to act on those recommendations.
The need for assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic has been heavy, and the influx of millions in federal dollars bears strict scrutiny. Public assistance programs often deal with people who complain about the application process, sometimes because they have trouble navigating the paperwork or understanding which programs they qualify for.
In the case of Clayton County’s ERAP funding, Mbaba said they had to bring in security at one local office because people who didn’t understand that ACF doesn’t give money directly to renters had threatened staff there.
Both Mbaba and Anglin told The Clayton Crescent that only a handful of the thousands of people each their groups have helped complained to the county. In some cases, they said, the citizen did not qualify for the particular kind of aid they were seeking—either because their housing issues had not been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, or because they had applied to the wrong ERAP program.
While ACF handled cases that had gone to eviction, HTNH handled cases that had not yet gone to eviction.
Ultimately, 112 Smith Street, specifically the Finance Department, has the power to approve the actual payments for which the nonprofits did the paperwork.
“BOC 4 race gets ugly,” April 26, 2022
“Scott, Davis sign flap escalates,” May 24, 2022
“BOC fires Bivins, no explanation,” June 8, 2022
“Bivins hired as Douglas County CFO,” July 20, 2022
“Splatter e-mails reflect Clayton County power struggle,” July 26, 2022
“Cop reassigned after outcry,” August 4, 2022
“BREAKING: Merkison named interim chief of staff,” August 16, 2022
“OPINION: Let the people speak,” August 17, 2022