Three commissioners at the Little Rock housing authority are set to go before the mayor and the city’s top elected officials on Tuesday for a hearing related to alleged misconduct. At a meeting on Thursday, at least of those commissioners voted to have the on-staff counsel represent them.
The attorney, Sylvester Smith, works with The Firm, PLLC based in North Little Rock. Smith said Metropolitan Housing Alliance began employing him as an attorney about a year and a half ago, meaning he’ll be tasked with defending allegations that reference issues from before he started. In the past, Smith has also defended Big Country Chateau — an apartment complex off Colonel Glenn in Little Rock that was shuttered earlier this year due to unsafe conditions.
“With regard to the allegations, it’s like anything else: everybody is innocent in this country until proven guilty,” Smith said. “I believe that these commissioners deserve defense, and I stand ready to mount that defense.”
Payment for Smith’s counsel will come from the Metropolitan Housing Alliance’s unrestricted funds if possible, though that may raise concerns with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We have to make decisions with what we know now,” the lawyer said Thursday. “What we know now is individuals are acting in their official capacity; they’ve been accused in their official capacity. … I believe this [counsel] is appropriate even if it’s just served to make sure whatever happens to these commissioners, the public’s confidence in this process is supported, so they see that everybody is being treated equitably.”
Last week, the Little Rock Board of Directors advised Mayor Frank Scott Jr. to request resignations from every active member of the housing authority’s commission based on recent findings. In addition to being labeled “troubled” from a 40/100 score by HUD standards, serious financial issues were noted in a separate report. The subsequent report included about $30 million in “potentially disallowed” funds to the Central Arkansas Housing Corporation, a nonprofit created by the housing authority.
Commissioners Lee Lindsey, Leta Anthony and Kerry Wright denied Scott’s request for resignation and are slated for hearings on Tuesday. Commissioner Branndii Peterson, who was up for a second term at the end of September, agreed to not seek reappointment, which stopped the need for a hearing.
Smith is expected to represent Lindsey and Anthony, but not Wright. After the meeting on Thursday, Wright, the newest commissioner, said he would be independently representing himself.
“I have chosen to not have legal counsel,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need it. I was not involved in the [troubling] activity.”
Commissioner Louis Jackson’s position is more complicated. Jackson voiced his desire for legal representation on Tuesday, but City Attorney Tom Carpenter said the city isn’t planning to hold a hearing for him. As a tenant board member (the organization’s policy mandates that one of its board members must be a tenant in federally subsidized housing), Jackson became disqualified from serving as a commissioner when he no longer needed federal assistance and moved out of a property the housing authority manages. He formally announced his resignation in August, but has participated in multiple meetings since his resignation.
Chairperson Lindsey told a group of reporters Thursday after the housing meeting that Jackson would continue to serve on the commission until a replacement is named.
Jackson won’t be getting a hearing on Tuesday because he shouldn’t be serving on the commission as he’s disqualified from the position, Carpenter said. And the fact that his votes have been included in meetings since his resignation, Carpenter said, is a problem.
“Whatever vote they take becomes problematic,” Carpenter said. “You can only fight one battle at a time.”
Jackson’s position is expected to be reevaluated after Tuesday’s hearings of the other three commissioners.