September 20, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN And JON LENDER, Courant Staff Writers
The multimillion-dollar development project at the heart of a federal lawsuit alleging corruption inside the Hartford Housing Authority was awarded to a Massachusetts developer Tuesday night, as public housing residents praised the process for its transparency and board members defended themselves against allegations of bid-rigging.
There was no dissent as the authority voted to begin negotiations with the Corcoran Jennison Co. of Boston to knock down the 770 units of housing in 159 buildings at Westbrook Village and Bowles Park and replace them with mixed-income housing and commercial development.
"This is the first time that the housing authority has really tried to work a different way, in terms of really pulling in residents, community leaders, community groups together to really shape and form a true development," said board Chairman Courtney Anderson. "I think the process was a good one."
"We feel that the process has gone really well, that we've been included in every step," said June Downer, vice president of the Bowles Park Tenants Association.
Association President Rose Price said it's time to get going. "The only thing I have to say is hurry up and start," Price said. "We're ready to go. We don't want it to be 10, 15 years down the line, now. We're ready to go ... so we don't have to live in those raggedy houses we're living in. Give us something decent." Residents will be relocated during construction
The authority acted on the same day its recently ousted executive director, Lancelot Gordon Jr., met with federal law enforcement officials about corruption allegations he has raised in a lawsuit filed last week over his firing. Gordon's lawyer, Craig Dickinson, confirmed that he and his client met with representatives of the U.S. attorney's office and the inspector general's office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but he would not discuss details.
Anderson, meanwhile, said he had talked in recent weeks with two inspectors from the HUD office about issues involving Gordon, who was fired after less than a year as director for what the board said were nearly $11,000 in financial transactions in which Gordon allegedly did not follow agency policies.
Gordon denies wrongdoing and claims in the lawsuit he was fired because he was trying to resist entrenched corruption at the agency. The authority and three commissioners, including Anderson, were named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Among several allegations in the lawsuit, Gordon claimed that authority board member Angel Arce invited him to a July 2004 meeting at the Olympia Diner in Newington with Meriden builder Salvatore Carabetta, and tried to persuade him to help steer the Westbrook/Bowles project to Carabetta. Gordon alleged that when he told Arce another development team had a better proposal, Arce - who was then chairman of the authority board - said he would throw out all the bids at the next authority meeting.
Gordon named the authority and three commissioners - Arce, Anderson and Yolanda Castillo - as defendants in the lawsuit.
The bids were thrown out at the July 20, 2004, board meeting, but authority officials deny Gordon's version of why that happened. Arce denies that the Olympia Diner meeting ever took place, or that he tried to push for Carabetta. Also, Anderson said Tuesday that the 2004 selection process was discarded for legitimate reasons including complaints by tenants that their needs and views were being ignored.
Anderson said the authority then embarked on the new selection process that culminated with Tuesday's unanimous selection of the Massachusetts group. That process involved tenants' groups, state economic development officials, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, the city of Hartford, housing authority staff members and state Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-2nd District, he said.
It would have required a "massive conspiracy" among so many participants to compromise the new process, he said, adding that Carabetta - whom Gordon said was being favored by Arce the first time around - was not even one of the finalists in the new process. Carabetta has been unavailable for comment.
Corcoran Jennison President Marty Jones attended Tuesday's meeting to show her support, noting that while state money has yet to be allocated to the $300 million project, that it would need "multiple sources of financing and layers of subsidy" in order to move forward.
Asked whether the pending lawsuit caused concern, Jones said she saw no problems as long as the agency had competent leaders with whom she could negotiate.
"As long as the housing authority has a clear commitment and a clear process as to decision-making while they're without an executive director, that could work with us," she said. "It's important to know there is someone we could enter into negotiations with."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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