Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. told The Times on Friday he agreed to settle a March 2012 discrimination complaint filed by ousted Hammond Housing Authority Director Maria Becerra rather than drag the city through a potentially expensive legal battle.
The city and Hammond Housing Authority reached an agreement with Becerra, HHA executive director for 27 years, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for $200,000. Becerra claims her employment contract was not renewed because of her work providing minority families with rent-subsidy vouchers to move into neighborhoods they otherwise couldn't afford, according to her attorney, Michael Allen.
"I decided the $200,000 settlement was much better than going through two years of expensive litigation," McDermott said. "We were told if we fight this and lose, we would have to pay both sides, which would be millions of dollars."
The reason for Becerra's contract not being renewed is in dispute. Several people involved who spoke to The Times and documents obtained by The Times offer differing takes on her dismissal.
HHA meeting minutes obtained by The Times show McDermott was concerned about her residency in Highland outside city limits, her high salary as director, and a legal misstep made during contract negotiations with her. But those minutes also contain remarks McDermott made that Becerra's lawyer said suggest she was let go because she helped provide Housing Choice Vouchers to minority families to move into predominantly white neighborhoods.
The city and HHA claimed no wrongdoing in their settlement with Becerra, who filed a federal complaint after she was let go by the authority.
"We allege that the real reason the housing authority let her go was that city officials weren't happy that the Housing Choice Vouchers were being used in a way that allowed low-income families, particularly of color, to live in the nicer parts of Hammond," Allen said.
Becerra declined to speak with The Times.
In 2013, HHA received $5.02 million from HUD for the Section 8 vouchers, which helped an estimated 708 families.
According to HHA meeting minutes obtained by The Times, board members in October moved to notify Becerra in writing they would pursue new contract negotiations before her contract renewed on Nov. 1.
But in November, they discovered Becerra's old contract had automatically renewed because she had not received timely written notice.
In the meeting, board members Tom Dabertin and Joe McCarthy questioned the HHA's then-attorney why the notice wasn't issued.
The board voted 5 to 2 to end her contract, with board members Leo Bryant and Lydia Ramos voting against. Bryant and Ramos have since left the board.
At the December HHA meeting, McDermott and told a crowd not to blame HHA board members, who he appoints. He said he was moving the authority in a new direction, looking to decrease salaries and employ Hammond residents.
"It's frustrating for Hammond residents when you see the Section 8 program making mistakes in neighborhoods, when you see people running the show don't live in Hammond, and you see the salaries for these people and they're disproportionately higher than everyone else's salary," McDermott said, according to the meeting minutes.
"Like for instance, the mayor makes $95,000. There are people at the housing authority that make significantly more than the mayor. We're going to have Hammond people running the housing authority."
McDermott also said the Section 8 voucher program was "one of the bigger threats in the city of Hammond."
"The Section 8 program has been completely mishandled," McDermott said. "It exploded. It's going in places where we don't want it to go."
Former HHA board Chairman Leo Bryant, a retired vice chancellor at Purdue University Calumet, was appointed to the board in the 1980s when McDermott's father, Thomas McDermott Sr., was mayor.
Becerra was the only executive director Bryant worked with during his time on the board. He left the board around March 2012, saying he could tell the Hammond Housing Authority board was moving in a new direction.
Bryant said he believed HHA became an exemplary agency under Becerra's leadership. He credits her for renovations to public housing facilities along 173rd Street east of Columbia Avenue.
"People all over the country were looking at our housing authority as a model to learn from," Bryant said. "We lost a jewel," he said, referring to Becerra's removal.
McDermott himself noted during the December 2011 HHA board meeting that "a lot of good things are happening" with the public housing and Columbia Center, according to the meeting minutes.
Bryant said that prior to contract negotiations with Becerra, the board had discussed her residency outside of Hammond, but nothing was forced on her. He also said some board members discussed salary, but he does not recall any specifics.
Under the Fair Housing Act, individuals have the right to go to HUD if they believe they have been discriminated against in seeking housing, said Ivan Bodensteiner, an attorney and law professor at Valparaiso University. The protection also extends to a person who assists someone facing housing discrimination. Bodensteiner said he was not directly familiar with the Hammond situation.
After conducting an investigation of Becerra's 2012 complaint, HUD offered Hammond and HHA an opportunity to settle out of court.
Allen, Becerra's attorney, said HUD officials discovered a large amount of evidence that supported her claim.
McDermott said that evidence was a collection of secret tape recordings of staff meetings that she took to HUD officials, which he said was "underhanded."
"She took the tape recorder to the federal government, and they took up her charge with a vengeance," McDermott said.
The settlement states HUD "has made no findings as to the merit of the complaint's allegations."
McDermott said he and the housing authority will continue to honor the voluntary settlement, though he doesn't agree with the premise of how the settlement was reached.
Hammond Housing Authority attorney Michael Jasaitis said the housing authority stands by its decision not to renew Becerra's contract.
"While the Hammond Housing Authority does not generally comment on personnel-related issues, the parties entered into a resolution without any finding of wrongdoing by HUD and without any admission of the allegations,” Jasaitis said in a statement.
"The non-admission Conciliation and Voluntary Compliance Agreement speaks for itself, and the HHA intends to adhere to the Agreement and continue to properly administer and provide high quality, low income housing programs."
The settlement states HHA will be required to use 97 percent of the funds allocated for the voucher program for the length of the three-year settlement agreement.
McDermott is also required to read a prepared statement during one of the housing authority public meetings in support of housing choice, more specifically, the Housing Choice Voucher program, according to the settlement agreement.
The settlement also requires a public outreach forum, and HHA employees receiving three hours of fair housing training.