WOONSOCKET – Three administrators at the Woonsocket Housing Authority have been placed on paid leave amid an investigation into alleged overspending on a security contract, the latest in a series of internal tensions to play out at the public housing agency.
WHA Executive Director Robert Moreau, Human Resources Director and Executive Secretary Katrina Lapierre and Security Director Roger Biron were all placed on leave following a closed-door session of the Board of Commissioners last Thursday, Oct. 21. WHA Legal Counsel Michael Marcello confirmed the board has hired the law firm Whelan, Corrente & Flanders to conduct an internal investigation while the individuals are on leave.
“I expect the Board of Commissioners will be meeting momentarily, probably as early as this week, to appoint an acting executive director,” Marcello said on Monday.
While the board declined to provide a reason for the investigation, Moreau said he believes the investigation is with regard to a security contract for services at WHA properties. In May, board Chairman Michael Houle raised concerns that a security contract undertaken the previous year had gone over a $250,000 spending limit. Moreau said at the time the overspending was due to pandemic-related oversights and the WHA planned to implement protocols to keep the situation from happening again in the future.
Moreau told The Breeze this week he was not aware he was under investigation prior to the start of the meeting. An agenda item for the meeting lists the board as going into closed session “for the purpose of any investigation proceedings regarding allegations of misconduct, either civil or criminal, and the retention of special counsel of the Law Offices of Whelan Corrente & Flanders LLP to assist in the same.”
“If you’ve been following your own stories in the The Valley Breeze, this whole thing comes as no surprise to me. That something like this was going to happen when they abruptly changed the makeup of the Board of Commissioners,” he said.
Moreau said he has hired attorney Joe Penza to represent him on the matter.
The investigation is the latest in a series of tensions that have played out between WHA administrators and board members since Houle was appointed to the board in the spring. During his first meeting as chairman in May, Houle requested but later tabled a discussion of Moreau’s contract prior to its expiration and questioned administrators about several aspects of WHA management.
Houle later found himself in conflict with WHA Assistant Security Director Kevin Marcoux after he supposedly questioned members of the Woonsocket Police Department about an accident Marcoux had allegedly gotten into with his WHA vehicle. Marcoux later wrote Houle an email saying the situation would be “dealt with accordingly,” prompting Houle to request an investigation into what he considered a threat.
In a letter dated Sept. 27, Moreau said he had concluded his investigation into Houle’s complaint and found no evidence of the accident taking place. He also said that after speaking with Marcoux’s union representative, he concluded the words “dealt with accordingly” referred to Marcoux’s plan to contact the union and did not constitute a threat or require disciplinary action by the WHA.
“This appears to be a case of a miscommunication or misinterpretation of an email. As an employee of the WHA, I would caution you to avoid any direct communication with members of the BOC and request that any further complaints be directed to my office,” he told Marcoux.
Nick Williams, Marcoux’s union representative, told The Breeze Marcoux was concerned about his reputation as a WHA employee and former police officer in Lincoln. Williams, who serves on the Board of Commissioners for the East Providence Housing Authority, said he considers the situation in Woonsocket “unheard of” in his interactions with housing authorities.
“I can tell you what’s going on in Woonsocket is something I never imagined could happen as far as a commissioner getting involved in the day-to-day to the level that Commissioner Houle is,” he said.
Williams is also representing Biron who, like Houle and Moreau, previously served on the Woonsocket police force in the early 2000s. Houle had a rocky tenure as chief that included a vote of no confidence by members of the police union. Houle eventually retired in 2008 after union members accused him of fixing a test for an incoming recruit.
Williams suggested on Tuesday that Houle’s actions in recent months could be retribution for the events of past years.
“I think once they do their investigation into whatever it is on (Biron) anyway, he’s going to be in the same boat as Kevin, and there’s going to be nothing found there,” he said.
Houle previously told The Breeze he planned to address the Marcoux controversy once Moreau’s investigation was complete. At last week’s meeting, he requested the Sept. 27 letter be placed on the agenda for discussion, but tabled the matter when it came time to discuss it during the meeting.
“I’m going to table it and I’m taking another avenue with it. I’ll leave it at that,” he said.
Asked about the latest investigation this week, Houle directed media requests to the office of Whelan, Corrente & Flanders. The law firm did not return a request for comment.
According to an agenda posted on Tuesday, Marcoux will be formally appointed as the acting director of security during a meeting of the Board of Commissioners today, Thursday, Oct. 28. The board plans to appoint Vasiliki Milios, the agency’s finance manager, as acting executive director.
Lapierre also responded briefly to the investigation this week, telling The Breeze she has not yet obtained legal counsel.
“We’re under investigation; we’re going to be respectful of the process and let it play out,” she said. “Quite frankly, I look forward to speaking very publicly when this is over.”
At least two other individuals in addition to Houle have been appointed to the board in recent months, including Scott MacLennan, a former Zoning Board member, and Thomas Calouro, a lieutenant with the Woonsocket Police Department. Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt appoints members of the board, which operate the WHA as a quasi-public agency.