NYCHA forces resignation, demotion of managers in effort to protect CEO Shola Olatoye from lead scandal

By LOUIS FLORES

Following the issuance of a report by the New York City Department of Investigation, showing that officials with the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, filed false Federal certifications about lead paint inspections, the Municipal public housing agency on Friday forced the resignation of two officials and the temporary suspension and demotion of a third in an effort to prevent NYCHA CEO Shola Olatoye from stepping down from office.

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On Thursday, Public Advocate Letitia James (D-New York) stepped up political pressure on the embattled public housing authority leader when Public Advocate James called for the resignation of NYCHA CEO Olatoye, according to a report published by The New York Daily News. In response, NYCHA officials forced Brian Clarke, a senior vice president for operations, and Jay Krantz, a director of technical services, to resign. Luis Ponce, another senior vice president, was suspended for 30 days and demoted, according to a subsequent report published by The New York Daily News. Information about the false certifications had been leaked to and reported about almost four months ago, also by The New York Daily News.

On Twitter, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York) defended NYCHA CEO Olatoye, even after The New York Daily News revealed that the Municipal public housing executive lied in 2016 to Federal officials about lead paint inspections that are the reported subject of a wide-ranging Federal investigation being led by a team of lawyers from the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's southern district.

It is not known when in 2016 that NYCHA CEO Olatoye lied about NYCHA's failure to comply with lead paint testing requirements. As reported by Progress Queens, when NYCHA CEO Olatoye testified at a March 2016 budget hearing before the Municipal legislature, she acknowledged the presence of lead in paint and tap water in public housing apartments. Despite the acknowledgement, she and City Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-Fordham), chair of the legislature's public housing committee, made representations during the hearing that due to the relatively small size of a proxy health study, the problem of lead in public housing was not a major concern.

Last week, a news report broadcast by the public radio station WNYC 93.9 FM, revealed that New York City children were living with elevated blood lead levels at, or in excess of, levels observed in the water-crisis-ravaged municipality of Flint, Michigan. The reported noted that, "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent data, 5,400 children tested above the threshold for elevated blood lead readings. The worst cases cluster in Brooklyn, but dangerously high blood lead levels were also found in Washington Heights, Harlem and Queens." The WNYC report was undergirded by a report, published by the Reuters news wire service, which made public some findings of an analysis of blood level tests. The Reuters report noted that when young children are exposed to lead, it results in development delays.

Prior to the reports being published by WNYC and the Reuters wire service, there had been growing indication that New York City faced a growing crisis over exposure to lead, either in paint used in residential apartments or in drinking water. After NYCHA CEO Olatoye testified at a New York City Council budget hearing that several apartments at public housing developments tested positive for lead in drinking water at levels that exceeded a Federal action level, Progress Queens sought and published information about the location and results of the water testing for lead in public housing developments. A separate Progress Queens report raised questions about an upward trend in various water tests for lead that City officials would not explain. An open records request filed by Progress Queens that sought records about lead service line replacements around the Manhattan neighborhood of Spanish Harlem was constructively denied, in part, by the Municipal water regulatory authority. Studies have shown that lead service line replacements, even when the replacements are only partial replacements, can disturb lead particles in pipes and lead to spikes in lead levels in drinking water. Massive construction projects may trigger service line replacements.

In recent years, The New York Times and WNYC have been separately reporting about water testing at New York City public schools, including how New York City was allegedly manipulating water test results, with WNYC having to flip-flop between two reports on the presence of lead in water. In 2016, WNYC broadcast a report that noted that few New York City schools saw high levels of lead, adding that, "New York City is giving the all-clear signal when it comes to drinking water in its public school buildings." Then, almost one year later, WNYC reported that high levels of lead were reported in New York City public schools, noting that lead was being detected in the water fountains at public schools. For its part, The New York Daily News has been publishing reports about the risks to public housing tenants from the exposure to lead paint.

Officials, who had knowledge of the risks that exposure of lead posed to residents but who took no action to mitigate those risks, have faced efforts to hold officials accountable for the dangerous consequences for inaction. In the lead-contaminated water crisis that has faced residents of Flint, Michigan, criminal charges were filed against three officials for decisions that contributed to the water crisis and for precautions not taken, according to a report broadcast by the CNN cable news network.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert Yalen, Monica Folch, and Talia Kraemer were reportedly leading the Federal investigation into NYCHA's physical condition standards, at least in the beginning. In a joint filing made before the Hon. U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts on 16 March 2016, the three Assistant U.S. Attorneys wrote that, in seeking a Court order for NYCHA to produce municipal health records, there was a compelling public need for the privacy-encumbered documents to be provided to the U.S. Attorney's Office. The three Federal prosecutors wrote in their Court filing, in relevant part, that, "Production of the information is in the interest of justice."

NYCHA faces a reported capital improvement budget deficit estimated to be as large as $17 billion. The de Blasio administration has attempted to reject any effort to address the shortfall needed to make long, outstanding repairs and upgrades to public housing, claiming that NYCHA is not an agency that is under his direct political control. Yet, he exerts discretion over the selection of its leadership, including having the power and authority to appoint the CEO of the public housing authority, and the de Blasio administration has been acting to privatise housing complexes or properties owned by NYCHA under an administration-directed plan to sell or lease public housing assets to private real estate developers and landlords.

According to information obtained by Progress Queens, advocates calling for ending corruption in Government, the saving of public housing, and the defense of the environment are reluctant to hold Mayor de Blasio, a Democrat, accountable for the toxic lead crisis facing New York City. Were Mayor de Blasio a Republican, advocates would not allow children to be exposed to lead. Instead, children under a Democratic mayor are permitted to be exposed to toxic lead without any qualm.

Over two years ago, community leaders called on NYCHA CEO Olatoye to resign. To restore credibility and accountability at NYCHA in the face of growing complaints about deteriorating conditions at NYCHA apartments, tenants and officials with the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a coalition of groups to which the Rev. David Brawley and the Rev. Francis Skelly belong, called on Mayor de Blasio to consider a new leader to head NYCHA. "Far too often, the mayor uses people like Olatoye as fronts and then undermines them by micromanaging matters from City Hall," co-wrote Rev. Brawley and Rev. Skelly in an editorial published by The New York Daily News.

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