Finalist for DeKalb housing chief could have a conflict

The DeKalb County Housing Authority -- already beset with questions about gifts of money or services from vendors -- may be about to hire another vendor as its next executive director.

If Eugene P. "Pete" Walker Jr. becomes DeKalb's new public housing chief, he will oversee the job performance of his current employer, Mercy Housing Southeast, a nonprofit paid to manage several of the authority's properties. He's currently Mercy's president.

Walker, one of three finalists for the housing job, also runs Millennium Development Partners, a for-profit company that does financial and bond consulting for the housing authority.

Walker declined to talk last week about how he would manage any potential conflict of interest with either business, or whether he would even have one. So did Glenwood Ross, chairman of the authority's board, and board member George Maddox.

The two other finalists for the housing job, Robert Kenner and Art Milligan, have a combined 22 years' experience running housing authorities in Florida and North Carolina, while Walker has a degree in business administration and was once CFO of the Atlanta Development Authority. The board met Friday in closed session to talk about personnel but emerged without announcing a decision.

Perceived conflicts of interest have figured prominently in recent news about the authority. Two members of its board -- Maddox and Dorothy Williams -- face an ethics hearing in a few weeks for soliciting political and charitable donations from a developer working with the agency.

Another vendor, according to WSB-TV's Richard Belcher, recently built a $5,000 deck at the home of a third member, Carleen Cumberbatch. An internal investigation later concluded there was no connection between construction of the deck and the vendor's business with the agency.

Maddox as much as said Friday that the authority's policy against accepting gratuities doesn't even apply to him.

"It really doesn't, because there's nothing I can give to anybody" in return for a gratuity, he said.

Maddox reasons that it's the authority's staff that negotiate the details of business transactions with vendors and development partners. Even if those deals can't go through without his vote, he doesn't believe his vote is worth anything.

A novel concept, to say the least.

DeKalb County's ethics code says officials may not accept gratuities that are intended to influence them. The authority's policy goes a step further, barring gifts from anyone with business before the authority, regardless of the intent.

Maddox, a former state legislator, received $3,000 in campaign contributions from the authority's development partner in 2006 and 2008, and $500 more to help put a new roof on his church. Walker also gave him $1,000 in political contributions.

Walker has his own political connections in DeKalb. His father, Eugene Walker, is a former state senator and former member of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.

The elder Walker, because of his own actions, is also a former chairman of the DeKalb Development Authority. He had to step down last year following revelations that interests seeking a $45 million tax break from the authority had donated $20,000 to his campaign for a school board seat. Most of those donations went undisclosed until after the election.

DeKalb's housing authority has substantial issues to address -- not just nagging ethical questions, but money matters as well. HUD is wrapping up a forensic audit of the agency after finding $2.5 million intended for public housing recipients was spent instead on ineligible costs, including office supplies, rental cars and the like.

Given a choice among two public housing professionals and a vendor with a political pedigree, whom do you imagine the authority's board will hire as their new executive director? We'll let you know.