JoAnn Davis, the director of the Chatham County Housing Authority charged in a 19-count indictment in late February, has reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
Davis agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Under Title 18 provisions of the U.S. Penal Code, she could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and fined up to $1 million, as well as forced to pay court costs and restitution to any victims.
The plea agreement, obtained by the News + Record, was signed April 10. It’s subject to a hearing and court approval, which have yet to be scheduled. Under the terms of the agreement, federal officials would dismiss the other 18 charges against Davis provided the court accepts her guilty plea to the first charge.
Davis was indicted on Feb. 13, then arrested Feb. 24, following a years-long investigation that determined she used her position to obtain more than $200,000 in kickbacks and payoffs from bogus projects initiated from her Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office. The CCHA, which operates with HUD funds, is responsible for providing housing to low-income families, the elderly and disabled within Chatham County; Davis worked at the county level but was considered a HUD employee.
Davis initially pleaded not guilty to charges of wire fraud, identity theft and obstruction. She was placed on unpaid administrative leave from her position on March 14; the CCHA offices have been operating by appointment only since her arrest.
Housing Authority board attorney Brian Crawford, a partner with Michael Best & Friedrich in Durham, did not respond to questions from the News + Record seeking information about a plan to replace Davis with a new director. CCHA board member Natasha J. Elliott, the executive director of Central Piedmont Community Action who’d previously said the board wasn’t aware of allegations involving Davis or the office, also failed to respond to questions.
The News + Record has requested and sought minutes from CCHA board meetings — minutes recorded by Davis — for the period of the past year, but board members contacted have not responded to those requests.
Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne told the News + Record he understood the CCHA’s board was “working with their legal counsel and HUD representatives on how to move forward.”
“We look forward to the Chatham County Housing Authority getting this internal issue behind them so that they can focus on their critical mission of providing assistance for affordable and safe housing to the residents of our community,” LaMontagne said.
The February federal indictment said Davis, who had run CCHA since 2012, used her position to fraudulently award contracts for services — including housing inspections, staff training and client workshops — to friends and family members. In return, Davis 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.
People who worked with Davis, had professional association with her or were served by the CCHA previously told the News + Record they had suspicions something was amiss in her department’s operation. One — who spoke on the condition of anonymity — said it was common knowledge Davis pocketed 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,” one 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.
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.
On April 14, Brunson-Poole — charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and theft of government funds — also entered a voluntary guilty plea. She faces up to a year and prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Seamus Hughes contributed reporting.