RICHMOND, Calif. – Muang Saefong and her children were freezing for weeks.
The heater in her Richmond public housing apartment blew out before Thanksgiving, and despite repeated calls to the maintenance department at the Richmond Housing Authority, she spent the holiday with no heat.
A man who introduced himself as Sid eventually showed up to fix it two weeks later, saying he was from the housing authority.
Sidney “Sid” Holter isn't licensed with the state to do contracting work with public agencies. On the housing authority’s official records, his name never appears as an agency contractor.
But he does have a connection to the housing authority. His wife, Debra Holter, is the agency’s maintenance manager and issued the contract for the work her husband performed.
A few days after Sidney Holter visited Saefong, a company called Strongbuilt Construction Co. sent an invoice to Debra Holter for fixing Saefong’s and four other residents’ heaters, according to city records obtained by The Center for Investigative Reporting. The cost: $2,362.50, at $50 an hour.
Since 2013, Debra Holter has given at least $78,000 in emergency work to Strongbuilt, agency records show. Half a dozen residents confirmed that Sidney Holter had fixed heaters in their apartments in the last year. The dates residents say he performed the work, along with descriptions of the work, correspond with official work orders issued to Strongbuilt by Debra Holter.
In an interview, Sidney Holter said he did the work for free for Strongbuilt – and all of the housing authority’s contractors. He said he was teaching the contractors how to do the work correctly.
“I’ve not received a dime,” he said. “I have gotten nothing but grief now out of helping the senior and disabled people get the heat they need, get the electrical they need.”
He said he did the work with the knowledge of the housing authority’s two top officials, Tim Jones and Kathleen Jones, who aren’t related. Tim Jones told him to “get it done,” Sidney Holter said, because the authority lacked qualified contractors. The two also signed off on Strongbuilt’s invoices.
It’s unclear why Strongbuilt got paid for work that Sidney Holter did. Residents say Holter often worked by himself.
Jose Flores, the owner of Strongbuilt, said he had never met Sidney Holter. He denied that Holter had ever performed any work or hands-on teaching for his company.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Flores said in an interview.
The Richmond Police Department opened a corruption investigation into Debra Holter last week after CIR began asking top city officials about her husband’s work. She’s on administrative leave, according to the city.
CIR’s reporting focused primarily on the contracts Debra Holter issued to the most common contractor, Strongbuilt. Of the four other contractors that regularly perform general contracting work for the housing authority, two declined to comment about whether Sidney Holter had completed any work for them. Two could not be reached.
One former contractor, Andre Vernon, said Sidney Holter was always around fixing residents’ stoves, but he never performed any work for Vernon’s company, Final Cut Construction.
In February, a CIR investigation revealed squalid conditions in Richmond’s public housing and widespread mismanagement within the housing agency, considered one of the worst in the country by the federal government.
Top officials had committed financial abuses. The former No. 2 steered contracts to his brother, and the housing authority's executive director and finance director had been caught improperly using agency credit cards.
City officials responded rapidly, calling for inspections and audits. However, City Manager Bill Lindsay and others have argued that any problems at the housing authority had largely been resolved.
In response to the latest revelation, Lindsay says there are serious problems with the agency and possibly the city’s internal controls.
“These are real serious problems, and they need to be addressed,” Lindsay said. “I’m beyond being disappointed; I’m actually angry that this has happened. We need to get on it.”
Debra Holter was out of town and could not be reached for comment. Tim Jones, the housing authority’s executive director, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Kathleen Jones declined to comment.
Most work orders go through a standard process: Residents call in their complaints to a maintenance line, and those complaints get entered into a computer system.
Then Leticia Niles, a management analyst for the housing authority, bids out the work orders in bundles of about 25 to a group of contractors. They send in their quotes, and typically the lowest bidder gets the work.
But emergency work orders are different. City rules say an individual who gets approval from his or her department head can bypass the bidding process and award contracts if there are emergency situations “to preserve life, health or property.” Emergencies are defined as natural disasters or some pressing health concern, according to the city’s rules.
Saefong’s heater was classified as an emergency, and on official documents, Debra Holter said Strongbuilt was completing the job. Even though Saefong’s heater problem was marked as urgent, it wasn’t completed until Dec. 5, more than two weeks after she first called to complain.
“The maintenance department is just horrible,” Saefong said. “I don’t like to complain, but they’re just horrible.”
Since 2013, Debra Holter has issued almost 50 emergency work order contracts to Strongbuilt, totaling at least $78,000, according to housing authority invoices. Strongbuilt also received contracts through the standard bidding system, collecting more than $340,000 total in both urgent and regular contracts since 2012.
It has been well known among some residents that Debra Holter’s husband did the housing authority’s maintenance work, said Dee Warren, who lives in the Nevin Plaza public housing complex.
“Debra Holter came into my apartment and said, ‘This is my husband; he does all our heater work,’ ” Warren said. “She said, ‘He’s our heating guy.’ ”
Sidney Holter fixed Warren’s heater Feb. 28, she said, but on official housing authority documents, Strongbuilt is listed as doing the work.
Angela Swanzya wasn’t home the day when someone repaired her heater. When she got home, she had a note waiting for her:
“12/12/13 – Please forgive the paint chips & sheet rock dust left on the carpet. I did not have a vacuum and you were not here for me to ask you if I could use your vacuum. Your heater is now working. Thanks, maintenance (Sid).”
Swanzya recognized the name. She said Sidney Holter had made heater repairs for her before.
Strongbuilt is listed as the company that fixed Swanzya’s heater Dec. 12, according to housing authority records.
Earning extra income
Debra Holter first joined the Richmond Housing Authority in May 1998 as the low-income asset specialist.
While at the housing authority, she has collected tens of thousands of dollars in overtime, often for “bundling work orders.” Last year, she made more than $17,000 in overtime on top of her base salary of $61,800, according to payroll records.
Flores started Strongbuilt in 2012 after working for Final Cut Construction, which had a $240,000 contract with the Housing Authority in 2011. While doing maintenance work for Final Cut at the housing authority, Flores worked with Debra Holter, who headed the maintenance department.
Debra Holter is required to file a conflict-of-interest form with the city. But she was one of the few city employees who never turned it in, according to Richmond’s city clerk.
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.