Veteran U.S. senator joins call to investigate Raleigh Housing Authority

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 14, 2014 

— U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa has joined U.S. Rep. George Holding in calling for a federal investigation of the Raleigh Housing Authority.

Grassley and Holding voiced concerns about the agency director’s use of comp time in a three-page letter sent Thursday to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We are concerned that the RHA – a HUD ‘high performer’ – allows its executive director, Steve Beam, to be on paid vacation from the housing authority for nearly three months a year to pursue his outside hobbies and interests,” the two Republicans wrote in the letter.

Grassley and Holding cite recent News & Observer reports that Beam has been using a combination of vacation, sick and comp days each year – in part to pursue a side business as a well-respected magician specializing in card tricks. He travels to magic conferences across the country, often using comp time accrued by working beyond the standard 7.5-hour workday. In recent years, he has taken up to 20 comp days a year.

“This benefit is extremely unusual for such a highly paid manager, and Mr. Beam has used it to rack up over four months of paid vacation from 2010 to the present,” the letter states. “In fact, because of Mr. Beam’s unique 7.5-hour workday, over the course of one year he accrues an additional two weeks of comp time simply by working a traditional eight-hour day.”

Beam – whose annual compensation has reached as high as $280,000 – has full support from his city-appointed board. He is one of the highest-paid housing directors in the country, and his pay is higher than the managers of Raleigh and Wake County, who oversee much larger budgets and staffs. Beam’s agency manages 5,700 public housing units for low-income residents and has an annual budget of $50 million.

Holding, a first-term congressman from Raleigh, announced Monday that he had requested a federal audit of the Raleigh Housing Authority because of the director’s pay and time off.

The congressional interest in the housing authority’s practices comes as the agency’s board has scheduled two closed-door meetings to discuss a “confidential personnel matter,” according to meeting notices. The first meeting was held Monday; the second is scheduled for next Thursday.

Raleigh City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said she met recently with Beam and several board members to discuss her own concerns. She said she was “disturbed” by Beam’s use of comp time, and she asked the board to reconsider its policies, which do not include any restrictions on how the time can be used.

“They were going to look at the comp time issue and also look at what the city’s policies were, and see if they align with what we do,” she said.

The city’s policy allows salaried employees to bank up to 70 comp hours at a time, but there’s no limit to how many comp days can be used annually.

Baldwin said she also urged the board members to consider limiting themselves to two five-year terms. But she said she has no problem with Beam’s salary reaching $280,000, even though the leaders of much larger housing authorities earn less.

Baldwin pointed to Beam’s decades of experience and successes at the agency. “Looking at the big picture, they changed my thoughts on the salary issue,” she said of her meeting.

But Grassley said he sees the salary numbers differently. In 2012, the five-term senator successfully pushed Congress to limit the federal government’s share for a director’s salary to no more than $155,500. Raleigh and other housing authorities avoid that cap by using other revenue sources to cover pay.

“At numerous housing authorities around the country, executive salaries and perks appear higher on the priority list than maintaining and providing quality housing,” Grassley said in a news release Thursday. “HUD needs to exert more oversight to make sure housing authorities spend taxpayer dollars appropriately. As President Obama wants to help low-income Americans, he could start by making sure housing funding is spent as intended and not wasted on largess for housing authority executives.”

In the letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Grassley and Holding demand a series of explanations and documents and set a deadline of Jan. 24 for the agency to respond. The requests include:

• “An explanation for why Mr. Beam is allowed to accumulate up to three weeks of comp time while working less than the standard 40-hour workweek.”

• “An explanation for how RHA is deemed a ‘high performer’ when the executive director is away from the office for nearly three months per year.”

• A list of the annual compensation packages for all housing authority employees, including bonuses, vacation and comp time.

• Travel records for all agency employees and board members.

• Documentation detailing Beam’s “use of RHA office equipment to conduct non-RHA business.” The lawmakers took issue with Beam’s posts to an online magic forum during business hours, writing in the letter that the leader “still uses government-funded time to indulge his interest in magic tricks.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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