NEW ORLEANS -- The two men brought to court two weeks ago in handcuffs and leg shackles looked severely out of place as they were hauled in front of a federal magistrate. Just hours before their arrests by the FBI, officers Quincy Jones and Rafael Dobard were patrolling the streets as New Orleans police officers.
Dobard’s attorney Eric Hessler said the federal charges “seems like trying to kill a fly with a hand grenade,” something that could have been handled with an administrative review rather than the heavy hammer of the FBI.
But multiple sources have confirmed that the federal case against the officers is part of a wider joint investigation involving federal authorities and the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau. Among those keeping a close eye on the probe is David Gilmore, the federally appointed head of the Housing Authority of New Orleans.
“I’ve got a retired IG (inspector general) officer here working for me right now who is watching this investigation very carefully and very closely,” said Gilmore, who has been the HANO administrative receiver since 2009.
Each of the officers is accused of being on the clock for two jobs simultaneously: their regular patrol duties for the city and an off-duty detail for the Guste Homes. The dollar amounts are not large for federal court: Dobard allegedly stole $2,268; Jones $1,855.
But while the individual dollars amounts are relatively small, the Guste off-duty security detail is one of the largest and more lucrative in the city. Records show that at least $432,000 in federal money was used to pay for the police detail in 2010.
Guste, often referred to as the Melpomene, had been known associated primarily with the high-crime, low-slung brick complex that sprawled for blocks along Martin Luther King Boulevard in Central City. But after being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Guste was reduced to the high-rise portion of the complex on Simon Bolivar Street, a 12-story building for the elderly and the disabled.
Guste is notable for being the only public housing complex in the city – and one of the few in the country – managed entirely by residents.
A full vote of confidence -- for now
The president of the Guste Resident Management Corporation is Cynthia Wiggins (pictured right), something of a local folk hero for her rags-to-riches rise from tenant to activist to her current position of power, president and CEO of a corporation that receives more than $3.5 million in public money to manage the Guste and operations at several other New Orleans public housing sites.
While the accused officers were working a police detail under Wiggins’ supervision, Gilmore said he is standing behind Wiggins with a full vote of confidence.
So far, anyway.
Gilmore said his support is not without qualifications if further wrongdoing is uncovered.
“If such evidence comes to light, it gets dealt with harshly and swiftly, and that includes, by the way, the people responsible for managing that process, for overseeing it,” he said.
While the federal probe appears to be recent, residents, employees and contractors at Guste have raised questions for years, many of them directed at the management of Guste under Cynthia Wiggins.
As a non-profit corporation, the Guste RMC is required by federal law to provide certain public records, including its tax returns. When Eyewitness News requested the tax forms, Guste attorney Joe Rome provided the documents with critical pages missing, pages that included directors and their salaries. When Eyewitness News pointed out the omission, Rome delivered the missing pages with the salaries blacked out.
A family affair
A close look at tax forms as recent as 2010, obtained through other channels, suggested reasons why Wiggins may have wanted to keep the information secret. The documents revealed a tight circle of Wiggins’ family and close friends serving on the Guste board of directors and, in turn, setting their own salaries as the highest ranking managers of the corporation. (See 2010 tax form)
“She’s surrounded by her family. Of course they’re going to be paid well and nobody’s going to say anything,” said former maintenance manager Chris Kuykindall.
For example, Wiggins heads up the Guste Board, which sets her salary as president and C-E-O. The documents we uncovered show that Wiggins’ salary was $79,920 in 2008, a figure that jumped to $132,360 in 2010, a 65 percent increase. In a telephone interview, Wiggins refused to reveal her current salary.
Another board member, Theresa Nicholas (pictured left), is widely known as Wiggins’ best friend and confidante. She’s also second-in-command as administrative director. Nicholas domestic partner, Freddie Williams, is the chief of staff.
Gilmore defended Wiggins and her operation, saying that who she hires and how much she pays them isn’t important, as long as HANO is getting its money’s worth.
And he says it is.
“I don’t tell those organizations who to hire or how much to pay those folks,” Gilmore said. “So if you’re asking me if I have a problem with nepotism with respect to the Guste RMC, I don’t, to be frank about it. I care about performance. I don’t care if you hire your mother or your sister or your brother or your uncle.”
But while Gilmore praised Wiggins, employees outside of Wiggins’ circle of family and friends paint a very different picture.
“She’s one that runs a company by fear and intimidation with family and friends that she has in her inner circle,” said one former high-ranking employee who requested anonymity. “If you cross Cynthia Wiggins, like she always says, she will cut you in a minute.”
There’s another longtime friend of Wiggins who does not show up on the Guste employee roster, or on the list of Guste contractors. But multiple sources at Guste say that Jesse Turner, a former HANO employee, has been directing construction work at some of the housing complexes overseen by Wiggins, including work at the former B.W. Cooper complex and Fischer on the West Bank.
Turner, a one-time housing activist who ran for City Council in 1994, is currently being awaiting trial in four cases of contractor fraud. In three of those cases, Turner is accused of ripping off private homeowners. But in the fourth case, Turner and his company Pyramid Construction, is accused of walking away from a federal housing contract after collecting more than $1.8 million.
Kuykindall said he went to Wiggins with his concerns about Turner, but was told to leave it alone.
“I was like, wait a minute, what’s he doing here? Especially after I found out that he was being prosecuted,” Kuykindall said.
Turner’s role at the Guste properties, and what he is getting paid, does not show up on any Guste contract or other public documents. But HANO chief David Gilmore received the same information about Turner’s presence at the Guste and said he is not overly concerned.
“Does it bother me? I supposed it does to some degree,” Gilmore said. “But I don’t know if it there’s anything I could do about it. But to hold Cynthia Wiggins responsible for it just is beyond the pale.”
In fact, Gilmore responded with praise for Wiggins.
“These communities have been held together mostly by tenacious, capable and special women. Cynthia Wiggins is an example. She’s a role model in that regard,” he said. “As long as Cynthia Wiggins and the Guste RMC perform for me, they have my backing.”
Gilmore said he is aware that the FBI recent arrests of two Guste detail officers could be only the tip of the iceberg. Acknowledging that the investigation is expanding, Gilmore nevertheless said his recent conversations with Wiggins have given him no reason to change his high opinion of her and her operation.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t following developments closely.
“I’ve been asking Ms. Wiggins that same question,” Gilmore said. “Are you monitoring the store closely enough to make sure it doesn’t come back splashing back on us?”