UPDATE: Indicted housing authority director still on the job

Operations of the agency 'are ongoing as they have been,' says board member


SILER CITY — The executive director of the Chatham County Housing Authority was arrested Friday as part of a wide-ranging federal investigation into more than $200,000 in kickbacks and payoffs from bogus projects initiated from her Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office responsible for providing housing to low-income families, the elderly, and disabled.  

Prosecutors say JoAnn Johnson Davis, who has run CCHA since July 2012, used her position and her Siler City office to fraudulently award contracts for services — including housing inspections, staff training and client workshops — to friends and family members. In return, Davis allegedly received “kickbacks” from those friends and family members — allowing them to keep small percentages of the payments after they returned most of the cash to her — even though the services were never performed for the housing authority. 

Four others were also charged related to crimes linked to Davis and 14 individuals cited as unindicted co-conspirators in the charging documents. Those named in the indictment were Clintess Roberta Barrett-Johnson, Michele Necole Bell-Johnson, Robert Johnson Jr. and Candace Agatha Brunson-Poole. The nature of Davis’ relationship with those four people was not immediately known, but prosecutors said at least five members of her family were involved in the scheme. Not all of the family members and friends will face charges.

Meanwhile, people who worked with Davis, had professional association with her or were served by the CCHA told the News + Record they had suspicions that something was amiss in her department’s operation. One — who spoke on the condition of anonymity — said it was common knowledge Davis was pocketing government funds meant to help those who needed emergency housing or other kinds of aid the Housing Authority was supposed to provide.

“She never cared,” the woman, who now is housed in Lee County, said. She and others ultimately contacted law enforcement for help.

“We’ve been waiting for this day,” she said when she learned of Davis’ arrest.

Fraud and identity theft

The 19-count indictment, which was filed on Feb. 13 in U.S. District Court in Greensboro but unsealed Friday, paints a picture of widespread and persistent corruption within the agency tasked with securing affordable housing for Chatham County residents in need. The charges include wire fraud, program fraud and identity theft, and involved Davis’ friends and family members and at least two other former employees of Durham Housing Authority and one other current HUD employee. 

According to the indictment, between 2017 and 2020, the CCHA received more than $10,000 a year from HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher Program — also known as “Section 8” — which assists low-income families, the elderly and the disabled with housing in the private market. As the executive director of the CCHA, Davis had the authority to select winning bids from among proposals received for contracts for services that would be paid for with the HUD funds, the indictment stated. 

All told, the Justice Department says Davis — who’s still listed as CCHA’s executive director on the housing authority’s website, and still employed by the agency — awarded illegal contracts to at least 13 friends and relatives. According to charging documents, those friends and relatives would submit “no-work” contracts to Davis, who would ultimately award them. The co-conspirators filed both their own bids and also competing bids in the false names of other individuals, knowing that the dummy bids would not win the contracts.  

‘Solves a lot of questions’

Davis was released after her arrest on Friday on the condition she surrender her U.S. passport, not travel outside N.C. without the approval of her federal probation supervisor, and avoid all contact with 20 people listed as victims or witnesses in the case, as well as her co-defendants.

The News + Record reached out to the CCHA’s board members listed on the organization’s website, finding that at least one was deceased and one no longer served on the board. 

Aaron Hall, who said he left the board in 2018 but is still listed as a board member on CCHA’s website, said Davis’ arrest “certainly solves a lot of questions” he had while serving.

“A lot of the initiatives that I was trying to move forward, she just always made it seem like there was a lot of red tape,” he told the News + Record. “Now I see why.”

Hall said that in discussions on the board about subjects such as affordable housing, it seemed that Davis gave the impression that “the encumbrances to moving forward … were coming from the outside, based on what she was saying. But now it looks like it was coming from the inside.”

Hall said the situation makes him feel “terrible.”

“Because we weren’t serving anybody,” he said. “People were lining their pockets. They get in position where they’re supposed to be serving others, and then they become what they say they abhor.”

‘Innocent until proven guilty’

Current CCHA board member Natasha J. Elliott, the executive director of Central Piedmont Community Action, told the News + Record on Tuesday that the board was aware of Davis’ indictment and “assessing that at the moment.” 

She said HUD had not given the board any guidance about Davis’ work status, and that Davis was still functioning as CCHA’s director and working from home.

“The operations of the agency are ongoing as they have been,” Elliott said.

Elliott said as a governing board, she and her fellow board members had no involvement in the office’s day-to-day operations, and up until the indictment, they weren’t aware of allegations involving Davis or the office.

“I can’t stress enough, these are allegations,” Elliott said. “I’ve been at an agency where you have disgruntled employees and disgruntled clients who can say anything, and you can be sued for anything, and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.”

The board and its legal counsel are doing “due diligence, to make sure that we’re doing what’s right for the residents of Chatham County,” she said.

“Clients who receive vouchers don’t have anything to worry about,” Elliott said. “We’re continuing to operate as we have been. And, you know, I just want everyone to know, for the sake of the employees and partners, we’re doing what’s right for the agency. So don’t rush to judge just because you read something in the paper. Let it play out, because they are innocent until proven guilty.”

‘She never cared’

A number of other people who spoke to the News + Record on the condition of anonymity said they knew Davis’ family members were awarded contracts for work they never performed. One local nonprofit executive said a staff member “called it years ago,” indicating suspicion about Davis.

One woman, a domestic abuse survivor, was moved into housing in Siler City provided by CCHA funding. She told the News + Record that she and others in similar circumstances “had to fend for ourselves” while Davis took funds intended for their caregiving.

“Our ‘welcome package’ included one bottle of dish detergent, a bottle of laundry detergent, and a multi-purpose cleaner,” she said. “That’s it. There was no staff on site and she hired her brother to supposedly do the inspection on the house, which he never did. The trailer that we lived in had mold and consistently flooded. She never cared. We were never allowed to see our family for overnight visits, even on holidays. The majority of the women [in the program] left when they realized we weren’t receiving any help to get on our own feet.”

Donations of items provided for the women in the program were kept locked away by Davis, the woman said, inaccessible to those they were intended for. Some residents were bribed to do work on the housing, the woman also said, because funds allocated to hire contractors had “disappeared.”

Their troubles were exacerbated when some of those women left and applied for housing in other counties — only to be told they couldn’t get housing vouchers because Davis had allegedly already claimed them. 

She and other women in the program eventually contacted the FBI in late 2020, only to find out the FBI was already investigating Davis.

Davis reaped more than $200,000

Court records say the contracts cited in Davis’ indictment were largely a pass-through back to her. For example, in late June 2016, the CCHA, under the direction of Davis, allegedly awarded a bogus contract to one individual for $800. The federal indictment states that person transferred $700 back to Davis. Prosecutors provided multiple additional examples in the court records of similar fraudulent efforts. In some cases, the contracts were allegedly awarded to individuals with no background in housing issues, such as a friend and cosmetologist of Davis. 

In one instance, the contract was so hastily put together with little federal oversight that a friend of Davis was awarded money, even though his own name was misspelled on the invoice. Authorities say Davis received a kickback of $3,700 on that contract out of the $4,000 that was awarded to the typographical error-filled bill. 

Investigators pulled the cell phone location records of at least one individual to help build the case that they were not present in Siler City at the time of work that was purportedly performed under the contracts. All told, the Justice Department says Davis reaped more than $200,000 in the illegal scheme over the course of more than eight years. 

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina, investigators from the FBI and the HUD Office of Inspector General conducted the investigation. 

The charging documents state that, at some point, Davis became aware of the HUD/FBI interest and made efforts to stymie the investigation. Her relatives were concerned about the federal pressure and allegedly communicated with each other that, “we family…don’t mess with that.” In a text message with a co-conspirator, charging documents say Davis told them, “You can tell them I’m the big fat aunt you don’t f*** with.” Prosecutors used that evidence to also indict Davis on charges of obstruction of justice, in addition to the wire fraud and identity theft. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina, which is prosecuting the case, late Saturday referred News + Record to information laid out in charging documents.

Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne told the News + Record on Monday that although Chatham County government supports the mission of the Chatham County Housing Authority, and members of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners appoint board members to the Authority, the Authority is not part of Chatham County government — but instead is a separate legal entity. 

As such, Davis is not a Chatham County employee.

“The Chatham County Housing Authority’s mission in providing assistance for affordable and safe housing to residents of Chatham County fills a critical need,” LaMontagne said. “We trust that the Authority will continue this important work while these internal issues are resolved.”

Officials from HUD, which employs two of the defendants named in the indictment, did not respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for Davis was contacted but did not respond. 

According to its website, CCHA’s purpose is to “(oversee) federal funds to help qualified low-income residents with their rental payments. The authority also works with some families in the rental subsidy program to develop a five-year plans (sic) to become self-sufficient and help others in the program become homeowners through subsidized mortgages.” 

Stephen Gartrell of Pittsboro, who retired from housing and community development work and has extensive experience working with housing authorities, told the News + Record that the county's housing authority is a separate local governmental body from HUD. It is an entity of the county — though separate from County government — and not the federal government.

"The director of the Authority is not an employee of the HUD, nor does she have a HUD office," he said. "[Davis] is an employee of the Authority."

While the Authority does receive HUD funding for many of its programs, it's the Authority board which is responsible for the hiring and firing of the director, Gartrell said.

The CCHA homepage prominently features a quote from Davis: “When we all work together to give residents the tools they need to become safe, healthy, and self-sufficient — the entire community wins.” 

A short biography of Davis on the CCHA website states as executive director, she is responsible for “ensuring that the housing authority complies with all applicable Federal, State, and local laws.”

Prior to working for CCHA, Davis worked at the Durham Housing Authority and the Gaston Housing Authority. 

Davis had her first appearance in front of a federal judge at a Greensboro courthouse on Friday and was ordered released pending her arraignment Thursday in Durham. Her criminal trial is tentatively set for April 10.

The domestic abuse survivor who spoke to the News + Record said she was just one of many who left programs under Davis’ supervision “because they got frustrated because they weren’t getting any help.”

“They would leave, or they would get kicked out for some weird reason,” she said. “She [Davis] would change the locks on our doors or whatever. It was just a mess. We knew she was taking money from us.”

Correspondent Shannon Keith contributed to this report.