August 13, 2008

Glass house - Housing chief was divisive, former colleagues say

The ringer on Dona O’Sullivan’s phone jabbered like an insistent child for most of Friday afternoon.

A former Metro government worker who retired from the Department of Housing and Family Services in March, O’Sullivan fielded calls from old co-workers wanting to trade stories about Kimberly Bunton, the 37-year-old department director and former attorney who had just resigned after a Courier-Journal reporter discovered more than $2,000 in low-income assistance had been given to Vickie Smallwood, who also happens to be Bunton’s mother. That included $500 from a taxpayer-funded account dedicated to assisting poor children. 

The stories, some of which have since been shared with LEO Weekly, are abundant, and they suggest deep flaws in Bunton’s ability as a leader. They reveal an intimidating figure whose incompetence and interest in the politics of personality may have contributed to a generally nasty office demeanor.

“People were treated so badly that once the story broke, I bet every employee was e-mailing some story,” O’Sullivan said. 

A former department employee who worked under Bunton and spoke on condition of anonymity mentioned a few instances when the director — whose salary was $105,000 a year — asked a lower-rung employee to assist someone who was ineligible for taxpayer-funded programs, some of which utilize federal grants. The former employee said the instances took place in early 2007, around the time Bunton became director of the department, which had just been formed after a Metro-wide reorganization on Jan. 1, 2007. One of the incidents involved a loan for Smallwood, although the former employee said it was not common knowledge then that Smallwood was Bunton’s mother. 

“We never had done that,” the former employee said. “Never. And they felt like they had to.” 

A veteran employee who left the department some time ago and also asked to not be named said there was a drastic shift in the office culture when Bunton arrived. “It was a change of the guard from kind of a work with people from a collaborative standpoint to a ‘this is the direction we’re going to go’ (environment),” said the source, who was high in the department’s organizational chart. 

Early in her tenure, Bunton had a lock installed on her office door, something that had never been done before, according to three sources who independently verified the story. Not long after, someone above Bunton decided it would be removed. 

Taken together, the incidents had a chilling effect in the office, according to Ron Jackson, who was the assistant director and had a 14-year history in Metro family services. Jackson left because “ethically, (I) didn’t believe in the direction of the new administration.” Now at Metro United Way, Jackson declined to elaborate. Asked whether Bunton ever requested that he disobey Metro policy, Jackson refused to answer. 

O’Sullivan said Bunton viewed with contempt employees who had been with the agency before the reorganization. “We’d had a department that had really been fair-minded and had done things according to policy, so that was a difficulty,” she said. “That’s why I think people were upset about things.” 

Most distressing, according to several sources, was that work wasn’t getting done.

“The work came to a halt,” Jackson said. “With the way things were questioned, our staff didn’t feel like they had discretion to make decisions.” 

Cathy Hinko, director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, said some nonprofits were concerned that not enough funding was coming from the department, jeopardizing certain programs. 

“We had been very concerned — because we work with nonprofit developers — that for three years, no requests for proposal were generated to help the Community Housing Development Organizations,” she said. “... When that happens, these organizations are not able to survive.” 

Principals at numerous housing and nonprofit agencies were asked to comment; most declined or did not return calls.

 

Attached to Bunton’s letter of resignation were three checks: one reimbursing the city for $1,350 on her mother’s behalf, although she maintains Smallwood qualified for the money; $500 for the poor kids; and $45 for the time two Metro employees moved a bookcase from her office to her home.

“In summary, while in all instances, I did not instruct or in any way suggest that rules should be broken or ignored, I understand that it could be viewed or misconstrued as receipt of special privileges or favors,” Bunton wrote in the letter. 

In an interview late Friday, Mayor Jerry Abramson called Bunton a “change agent” who was charged with updating a swamped department and exercised poor judgment. 

Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, is co-chair of a committee currently investigating  millions in unspent federal housing dollars. He said Bunton was scheduled to testify Wednesday; that hearing was cancelled late Tuesday. Some council members have called for an outside investigation of Bunton’s time as director, and the state auditor announced an investigation Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, Abramson has placed Tina Heavrin, his general counsel, in charge; there will be an internal audit and investigation, he said.