After the Texoma Council of Governments dealt with allegations, terminations, investigations, a lawsuit and settlement, the discussion on these topics persists. The governing board is set to decide Thursday whether Executive Director Susan Thomas will keep her job.

(Editor’s note: This is the third and final part of a multipart story. The second installment was in Friday’s edition and can be found at http://bit.ly/2rUpc05.)

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this article erred in spelling the surname of Sharon Luse, a Texoma Council of Governments employee. Additionally, the article has been updated to clarify information regarding texts exchanged between Susan Thomas, executive director of Texoma Council of Governments, and Elizabeth Miles, a certified public accountant. The disdain with an expletive directed at Stacee Sloan Caskey was attributed to Miles, according to the Roger Sanders letter. The letter quoted one text from Thomas that did not contain the mentioned disdain.)

After the Texoma Council of Governments dealt with allegations, terminations, investigations, a lawsuit and settlement, the discussion on these topics persists. The governing board is set to decide Thursday whether Executive Director Susan Thomas will keep her job.

All of these issues were set in motion on Oct. 13, 2015, after maintenance worker David Ryon reported allegations of fraud, waste and abuse perpetrated by Gary Edwards, the former public housing maintenance program manager. Edwards was terminated the next day, and former Finance Director Stacee Sloan Caskey began an investigation.

In the wake of the Edwards issue, TCOG’s executive leadership became fractured and Sloan Caskey was terminated in January 2016. The executive leadership team was formed by Thomas, Sloan Caskey, current Deputy Executive Director Randy McBroom and Client Services Department Director Allison Reider and Information Technology Director Raj Croager.

Following Sloan Caskey’s termination, Elizabeth Miles was hired to perform a third-party investigation in January and February 2016. After Sloan Caskey filed suit and it was settled in April, the conversation turned to Thomas and how thoroughly the fraud, waste and abuse allegations were investigated. Miles addressed some of these issues and also voiced support for Thomas in a letter.

The letter from Miles

In an email with an attached letter sent to McBroom, Miles asked him to forward a letter dated April 27 to the TCOG board and the Texoma Housing Partners board. She states that her first intent with the letter was to correct misinformation that implied Thomas thwarted Miles’ investigation and other possible negative implications on the organization’s auditors.

“The second is to express my disgust as a private citizen and a professional woman for the attempts to essentially blackmail Dr. Thomas into resigning or coerce the TCOG Board into cancelling her contract,” Miles wrote in the email. “Frankly, I am embarrassed by the actions of the Grayson County Commissioners Court and sincerely regret my vote for the current judge, a man that I mistakenly believed to be a man of integrity. I won’t make that mistake in the future.”

At the April 25 Grayson County Commissioner Court meeting, Commissioner Jeff Whitmire and Grayson County Judge Bill Magers called on Thomas to resign as executive director. The elected officials recounted the actions from the April TCOG board meeting and quoted sections of Thomas’ deposition, which they say made the case to not renew Thomas’ contract. Whitmire and Commissioner Phyllis James are both members of the TCOG governing board.

In her letter, Miles states she was hired to conduct the investigations because of her experience working with public housing authorities and as she was not associated with TCOG. She reiterated that her investigation revealed that “Edwards was the only perpetrator of fraud, waste and abuse at THP.”

She noted that Roger Sanders, the attorney who represented Sloan Caskey, previously sent a letter to each TCOG board member informing them about the “Lonnie Ashlock Papers.” She said Sanders told the board that Thomas withheld these documents from Miles, but Miles said she did receive these documents as soon as TCOG leadership received them. However, she found the information to be “totally inconsequential and did not consider them as fraud, waste, or abuse.”

“If anything, I viewed them as anything but,” Miles said.

The Lonnie Ashlock Papers

On Feb. 9, 2016, Public Housing Program Manager Susan Ensley interviewed Lonnie Ashlock, a maintenance worker, who told Ensley about taking a washing machine, which was abandoned in a housing unit. His report led the executive leadership to find that maintenance staff had a history of taking items abandoned in units under Edwards’ authority.

In his written statement, which was sent to Thomas, Reider and McBroom, Ashlock said he was working on a vacant unit in Whitewright and some items were left behind including a washing machine. He said he assumed the washer did not work as it had been left behind, so he loaded it onto his truck to take home so he could see if it was salvageable. On the way home, he said he noticed he was being followed, so he stopped at a relative’s house. A pickup pulled up, and someone snapped photos of him. Ashlock repaired the washer and returned it to the maintenance shop in Bonham that night.

From permission granted by Edwards, Ashlock said he had on occasion taken abandoned washing machines and dryers to his house to see if the appliances were salvageable. He noted in his statement that he is given old appliances on occasion and also picks up appliances on the roadside intended for the trash.

“If the appliances can be fixed, I have fixed them and given them to ladies in my church and I have also sold washing machines,” Ashlock said in the statement. “I cannot say that the appliances I have sold in the past have come from abandoned units at the housing authority.”

With any of the appliances Ashlock took from the housing authority, he said the items were from vacant or abandoned units and were intended to be trashed or scrapped.

“I did not understand, based on having previous permission, that I was in the wrong,” Ashlock said. “I will NEVER take anything away from the housing authority property again. I love working for TCOG, and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize my job.”

After this report was made, the executive leadership took steps to address the issue on the same day. In a memo from Thomas to Reider, Thomas said she made it clear during the Edwards investigation that “employees are not allowed to personally gain or benefit from THP property and that income generated from all scrap metal items and appliances that are sold must be documented and turned in for deposit to THP accounting staff.”

In the memo, Thomas goes on to instruct Reider to document all the times where maintenance employees took items, to have the employees return the items or reimburse THP, and meet with the employees to outline the policies.

In a later memo from Reider to Thomas dated Feb. 15, 2016, Reider said she hand-delivered a memo outlining the related policies to each maintenance employee and each employee signed off on it. Ensley interviewed each employee, and statements were taken from each on what items they took and when the items were returned. The items included Scentsy candle wax, a hockey stick, an old refrigerator and two steak knives.

The Miles letter continued

Miles said in the letter that she was insulted by what she saw as the point of the Sloan Caskey lawsuit — to defame and blackmail Thomas. She notes that while she had not met Thomas before being engaged to conduct the investigation, she has since developed an appreciation of Thomas’ leadership and of the loyalty of her staff. She notes that during the suit proceedings, Thomas has “continued to hold her head high.”

“It is clear to me that Mrs. Caskey’s political connections seized this opportunity to smear the reputation and integrity of Dr. Thomas,” Miles said.

Miles goes on to state that the Grayson County Commissioners Court was “attempting to manipulate and control this board,” and Thomas, by settling the suit, had “sacrificed her personal agenda for the good of the organization.”

“I applaud those of you who are not buckling to the political pressure and voting your convictions,” Miles said. “I ask the rest of you to consider if you are basing your vote on what is best for TCOG or succumbing to political pressures and the media circus from those who like nothing more than to see TCOG collapse.”

The Sanders letter

In a letter dated May 1 and addressed to TCOG board President Jason Brinkley, Sanders writes a response. The letter served as a warning as Thomas at that time had not provided an executed copy of the settlement documents — though officials previously said she did later that day — and it served to address Miles’ letter to the board.

Sanders claimed that Thomas collaborated with Miles on the letter to continue controversy that should have ended with the mediation agreement.

“I thought we had put this behind us, but apparently Dr. Thomas just won’t let it go, and seeks to take pot shots at my client’s exonerated position by supporting the person hired to attack my client, Ms. Miles,” Sanders said.

Addressing the claim that Thomas settled for the good of TCOG, Sanders said she had every opportunity to not settle and Thomas fought to withhold documents during the proceedings. Sanders then goes on to outline evidence questioning Miles’ neutrality and the conclusions of her fraud, waste and abuse report. He claims that Thomas attempted to compromise Miles’ neutrality before and after her report.

Sanders’ letter states that Miles and Thomas developed a friendship before Miles’ deposition in November 2016, and the letter quotes texts between the two. The texts show that a friendship developed between the two and they express disdain with expletives directed toward Sloan Caskey.

The disdain with an expletive directed at Sloan Caskey was attributed to Miles, according to the Sanders letter. The letter quoted one text from Thomas that did not contain the mentioned disdain. It said, “I’m damned proud to have you in my corner.”

Sanders notes that on top of the $7,875 Miles was paid for conducting her investigation, she received $22,132. The payments were documented on an attachment to the letter; the letter had 106 pages of attachments that included the reports, sections of depositions and the Lonnie Ashlock papers.

On Miles’ report, which was dated Feb. 12, 2016, and was submitted to the TCOG board on Feb. 18, it attaches documents she reviewed, but Sanders points out that the Ashlock papers are not mentioned or attached.

“Thomas apparently took Ashlock’s guilty self-reporting very seriously because the same day, February 9, Thomas and Minton sent out new regulations about not taking THP property, regardless of the amount or size,” Sanders said, referring to Reider by her former last name. “It was illegal, and Thomas knew it.”

Sanders’ letter claims that Thomas and Reider were warned in December 2015 that maintenance workers were pilfering inventory and properties, but they ignored that warning until Ashlock made the report. He claims Thomas didn’t tell Miles about this information, and he notes that it is unknown what was pilfered before Edwards’ termination.

“To this good day neither you nor we know if the employees took anything, and if they did, what and of what value,” Sanders wrote. “There are no forms, no affidavits, no estimations of value, and no verifiable non-connection to Edwards taking the tractor/parts/shop materials/small tools, etc.”

After Edwards was hired in July 2012, part of his job was to implement an inventory system for the maintenance shop in Bonham as a system was not in place. While a system was created and enacted for a short time, it was later dismantled due to software problems. In Thomas’ deposition on Nov. 15, 2016, she said Edwards was supposed to implement an inventory system and Reider was responsible for making sure he did. She said there were multiple starts and stops in the process and after Edwards’ termination, a system was put in place.

Maintenance workers alleged that Edwards pilfered from the inventory, but both Sloan Caskey’s and Miles’ reports expressed the difficulties of assessing the items and value of supplies taken. Thomas said they don’t know if there was a loss in the inventory and “there was no way to determine if some or none had been taken” because of the lack of a system in place.

Sanders said in his letter that Miles’ report is incomplete as several questions remain unanswered. He noted that Edwards was deposed in November 2016, but he did not answer any questions. Instead he pleaded the Fifth Amendment, a right to not self-incriminate, more than 100 times.

“There is a host of information which TCOG has not corralled or quantified, especially in light of Edwards’ abundant wrongdoing,” Sanders said. “It is unlikely that when a former employee sprays out 130 Fifth Amendment privilege claims, no one else working with him had any knowledge or involvement with or about Edwards’ activities.”

Thomas has maintained that she is unaware of any losses related to the allegations against Edwards’, and every allegation has been followed up on. As a result of this stance, TCOG has not reported any issues of fraud, waste and abuse relating to Edwards to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, Sanders did file a report with the HUD Inspector General Hotline on June 1, outlining what he called a lack of TCOG reporting to HUD on any of the allegations and lawsuit.

“I don’t think it’s possible for any supervisor in any organization to catch everything,” Thomas said in her deposition. “There — these — these — situations happened. There are bad, ugly, lying, mischievous, terrible people in the world. And regardless of your policies and regardless of your oversight, if they want to steal, they will steal. The best you can do is attempt to keep a solid policy, attempt to talk to your staff about it, attempt to follow up on the other things that they are supposed to be doing. And when it comes up, properly deal with it. Which is what we did at TCOG.”

Employees’ support of Thomas

TCOG employees have voiced support for Thomas both in the past and present. Some have written letters to the board or met with the members in recent months to inform them of their experiences under Thomas’ leadership and how she has moved the organization forward. In a public information request sent to TCOG in May, the Herald Democrat received internal surveys and emails indicating the feelings of employees.

In a letter addressed to board member Cliff Sicking, which was sent on May 5, TCOG employee Sharon Luse said because of Thomas’ leadership, employees have a “high level of satisfaction and a great sense of purpose.”

“Dr. Susan Thomas holds us to high standards,” Luse said. “She expects us to put all our heart into serving others and deliver our services according to the TCOG’s organizational values that she helped create with us.”

In a letter addressed to board member Keith Clegg, TCOG employee Mary Browning-Alquist said Thomas is a positive force and cares greatly for TCOG’s clients. She said under Thomas’ leadership, the organization has flourished as the programs and services have grown.

“Dr. Thomas has the professionalism and experience to carry this agency forward,” Browning-Alquist said. “Please allow her to do this. She is also kind, compassionate, loyal, and giving of her time to this community. This organization has more special things to accomplish with her at the helm.”

In an internal satisfaction achievement survey for 2016, TCOG employees report a majority of positive feelings about the organization and leadership: 82.5 percent of TCOG employees said they were “very comfortable” expressing opinions and ideas to their supervisor. It was 76 percent in 2015 and 71 percent in 2014. Nearly 60 percent of employees said they believed internal communication at TCOG has improved. The percentage increased from the prior year, but is still lower than the 63 percent reported in 2014.

Employees gave high ratings, on average, for how well employees, program managers and directors follow certain leadership foundation principles. On a scale of one to five, employees rated current quality of life and overall health in the four range, on average. The majority of answers were in the four and five range.

The governing board will meet Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the TCOG building, 117 Gallagher Drive in Sherman. The board will discuss Thomas’ contract, which will expire in August, in executive session, but the action on whether to renew or let the contract expire will be made in open session.