Two staff members at the Taos County Housing Authority, including the nephew of county commissioner Nicklos Jaramillo, were “layed off” following the release of a report that found some employees had an “overly familiar” relationship with elected officials.
Concerns over nepotism were one of several issues detailed in the report, which was prepared by Eastern Regional Housing Authority.
Eastern Regional was hired as a consultant to review the Taos County Housing Authority in the wake of a federal investigation into alleged embezzlement by the agency’s former executive director, Carmella Martínez.
After the initial allegations late last year, Martínez, and the agency’s Section 8 coordinator resigned. The contract for the housing authority’s accountant was also terminated.
No indictments have yet come down against Martínez, or any other employee or official. Charges could be filed in the next few weeks, according to Chris Herbert of Eastern Regional Housing Authority.
Herbert addressed the Taos County Commission, Tuesday (Aug. 21) to explain his agency’s findings and offer suggestions on how to move forward.
In the four months that Eastern Regional oversaw the housing authority, Herbert said that he and his staff discovered many housing authority employees were unaware of the federal regulations covering their jobs.
Herbert told the commission that staff may have been intentionally left in the dark so that they would not catch on to the suspected embezzlement.
He called the structure of the Taos County Housing Authority (TCHA) an “odd hybrid” that created confusion as to who oversees housing authority operations.
At the moment, the housing authority is governed by a separate board appointed by the Taos County Commission. However, housing authority staff are under the supervision of the Taos County Manager.
“This produces a unique problem: The TCHA Board has taken responsibility for the governance of the TCHA, including signing off on HUD documents which indicate governance, yet they have no way to truly hold the staff of the Housing Authority accountable for following through with their directives,” the report reads.
The report also says long-standing members of the housing authority board are “unsure of their role with regards to governance of the housing authority.”
The report notes that the presence of the “non-voting member” of the county commission who sits in on housing authority meetings appears to be a violation of state law. Larry Sánchez is the current “non-voting member.”
The housing authority board includes Della Barrone, wife of Taos County Commission Dan Barrone. The position is not paid, and Dan Barrone says he nominated his wife for the position because she has experience with public housing.
According to the report, the housing authority was in “chaos” when Eastern Regional arrived. Many employees were under-trained, and some showed indifference toward the presence of an outside reviewer.
“On numerous occasions [housing authority] staff has claimed to be connected to or know TCHA board members of members of the county commission personally,” the report reads. “They have further stated that they cannot be fired or disciplined due to their connections with the County political system. This may impart to the staff a perceived level of immunity to being accountable for their actions and job performance.”
The report later states that the housing authority should end “... Nepotism hiring and employment practices which in the best case scenario lead to the perception of wrongdoing and in the worst case scenario leads to wrongdoing.”
Following a request for public records, Taos County provided a copy of Eastern Regional’s final report. The county did not provide copies of individual employee performance reports, which are not subject to public disclosure.
On Friday, interim county manager Barbara Martínez said public housing manager Laura Sánchez and capital fund coordinator Patrick Jaramillo — the nephew of Taos County Commissioner Nicklos Jaramillo — had been “layed off.”
Herbert did not mention any names Tuesday, but he did say the Capital Fund Program was under review for the questionable way money may have been allocated for contracts.
The Taos News has previously reported that Nicklos Jaramillo’s brother, Armando Martínez, has been a Section 8 landlord for several years, creating a potential conflict of interest. Jaramillo has said he had no knowledge that his brother was a landlord.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Herbert strongly urged the county commission to make the housing authority a department of the county. He said doing so would improve oversight and clear up management ambiguities. Herbert said the county could later look into forming a regional housing authority with neighboring counties that could potentially increase low-income housing funding.
Herbert also stressed the importance of finding a competent and experienced director to restore stability to the housing authority. Such a director would help fulfill the housing authority’s fundamental goal of serving the low-income residents of the county.
Deputy county manager Richard Bellis told the commission the remaining staff at the housing authority were capable and could be trained.
Following Herbert’s presentation, the county commission directed county staff to prepare to make the housing authority a county department. Some commissioners have also expressed an urgent need to find a long-term director for the housing authority.
Commissioner Andrew Chávez appeared eager to hire someone for the position. “We’ve given the public the impression that we don’t know what’s going on over there and that we have no plan,” Chávez said. “We need to make some decisions and we need to make them fast.”