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NYCHA officials resign after lead paint inspections report; authority announces changes

NYCHA chairwoman Shola Olatoye is being urged to

NYCHA chairwoman Shola Olatoye is being urged to step down after a Department of Investigations report alleged she signed off on federal compliance documents while knowing the agency had failed to complete lead-based paint inspections. Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

Three senior managers of the beleaguered New York Housing Authority have resigned or been demoted in a scandal over the filing of false paperwork certifying that lead-based paint inspections had been completed, even though the apartments were never checked, a housing spokeswoman said late Friday.

Brian Clarke, NYCHA’s $184,782-a-year senior vice president of operations, and Jay Krantz, the authority’s director of technical services, who earned $148,765, resigned; Luis Ponce, senior vice president for operations was demoted to resident building superintendent, decreasing his salary from $184,609 to $88,499, according to Jean Weinberg, NYCHA’s chief spokeswoman. Ponce was also suspended for 30 days without pay.

The men had each worked for the authority for more than two decades.

The “personnel actions,” as the authority called them in a Friday news release, came in addition to “sweeping changes to overhaul operations,” including the creation of an in-house compliance department and commissioning a “lead expert advisory committee.”

City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who oversees the chamber’s committee on public housing, shrugged off the announcement.

"Calling these changes ‘sweeping’ hardly makes them so,” Torres said in a statement. “An internal compliance department is no substitute for an independent monitor. NYCHA's failure to recognize the need for third-party accountability will only deepen the damage to its credibility."

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was vacationing this week in Connecticut, said through spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie: “The mayor supports Chair [Shola] Olatoye’s reforms and her holding senior leaders accountable.”

On Thursday the mayor tweeted that Olatoye – who knew for more than a year that the inspections had not been done, according to the Department of Investigation report – “isn’t going anywhere.”

Public Advocate Letitia James on Thursday was among several city and state officials who called for Olatoye’s resignation following a “damning” report by the DOI, which serves as the city’s watchdog agency.

In the tweet, de Blasio said those who want Olatoye to resign are putting politics ahead of residents’ needs.

“.@SholaOlatoye is turning NYCHA around and she isn’t going anywhere. She didn’t create the agency’s shortcomings–she’s the one I trust to fix them. It’s a cheap stunt to call for her to step down, one that puts political ambition ahead of the urgent needs of NYCHA’s residents,” de Blasio said on Twitter.

The Department of Investigation, which released its report on Tuesday, found that NYCHA not only stopped conducting the visual assessments for lead paint at about 55,000 apartments beginning in 2013, but the agency also continued to file false documentation to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development claiming that the units had been inspected and were in compliance.

Senior staffers at NYCHA were made aware the agency was no longer in compliance in 2015 and Olatoye was alerted to the issue in 2016, yet false documentation continued to be submitted to the federal government, according to the report.

“This is the fourth time in two years that DOI has found NYCHA to be careless when it comes to tenant safety,” DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters said. “NYCHA has an obligation both to protect tenants and to be honest with the public.”

Following the report’s release, Weinberg said the agency began addressing the problems more than a year ago during an investigation by the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office.

“Since the Housing Authority learned it wasn’t in full compliance with lead-based paint regulations and reporting, it has taken steps to address the underlying issues. We owe our residents better, and we’ll take today’s recommendations into careful consideration,” Weinberg said in the statement.

DOI recommended a monitor oversee NYCHA activities – particularly with regard to lead paint, smoke alarm and carbon dioxide alarm inspections – and report back to DOI on any findings, but James, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. and two lawmakers demanded more be done.

“The circumstances surrounding the city’s failure to conduct lead inspections and the false reporting that followed are simply unacceptable,” James said on Thursday. “Every man, woman, and child who calls a NYCHA apartment unit home deserves to live in safe, decent conditions and the city must do everything in its power to ensure that these residents are protected.”

James, along with state Assemb. Walter Mosley (D-Brooklyn) and City Councilman Rafael Salamanca, called for Olatoye to resign as head of the agency. All three officials said that changes at NYCHA were needed, but differed on action plans.

Salamanca, whose district mostly covers parts of the Bronx, said he felt compelled to put his personal friendship with Olatoye aside and call for her to step down.

“I believe there is no justification for why lead paint testing and abatement wasn’t completed and reported properly. This was incompetent at best, negligent at worst,” he said in an emailed statement Thursday.

Díaz, meanwhile, said he agreed with the DOI’s recommendation but wants the monitor to be appointed by the state, citing the city’s “current position supervising NYCHA” and the federal government’s “apparent distaste for public housing” as reasons why the state needs to be the one to hold the agency accountable. He declined to call for Olatoye’s resignation but sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman urging for the commissioning of a state monitor.

“A state-appointed monitor is the only credible way forward to provide for the safety and well-being of our city’s public housing residents,” Díaz said.

A spokeswoman for Cuomo’s office said the governor was considering the letter, but hadn’t made a decision as of Friday afternoon.

“We have continuously expressed concerns with NYCHA’s operational failures and these latest allegations – and potential legal violations – that the agency knowingly committed by exposing New Yorkers to lead paint are particularly disturbing,” spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer said. “We just received the letter, and we will be reviewing it with our fellow state partners, the Attorney General and the State Comptroller.”

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