The lone member of the Sanford Affordable Housing Development Corporation, the private nonprofit which owns downtown Sanford’s historic Wilrik Hotel Apartments, reported to city police in August that someone had embezzled $100,000 from the organization, the Rant has learned.
Following the recent departure of Robert Woods, Ben Gardner became the last remaining member of the SAHDC’s board of directors, which appoints its own members. It is unclear exactly when and why Woods departed the organization, but Gardner filed a report with the Sanford Police Department on August 14 of this year alleging that someone had made $100,000 in “charges against (the) business.” The report, which states the embezzlement began on June 1, 2016 (you’ll see that date again in this story), doesn’t name a suspect and the status of the case is currently “further investigation.”
Reached for comment, Gardner declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Capt. Vinnie Frazer of the Sanford Police Department, who called the $100,000 number an “estimate” of the charges against the organization, said city police have referred the case to the State Bureau of Investigation.
“We referred this to the SBI because it’s dealing with a nonprofit corporation, and they have a specialized financial crimes division to investigate these things,” Frazer said. “It felt better for them to do this investigation.”
The Wilrik has been a source of controversy and confusion in Sanford’s affordable housing sector since the beginning of last June, when the SAHDC and the Sanford Housing Authority ended their contractual relationship under which the SHA had previously had oversight of the building’s operations, but not ownership.
The SHA, an arm of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, exists to “ensure safe, decent, and affordable housing; create opportunities for residents’ self-sufficiency and economic independence; and assure fiscal integrity by all program participants,” according to its website.
The organization’s board of directors are appointed locally by the Sanford City Council, but beyond appointment authority, is entirely federal. It serves residents in Lee and Harnett counties.
The SAHDC, on the other hand, is an entirely private nonprofit entity.
The split was controversial because it revealed that the SHA was never the owner of the Wilrik, as many locals had thought. News reports and a memorandum of understanding from 2013 show that the SAHDC had been represented as “owned and controlled by the SHA” when former SHA Executive Director Ken Armstrong lobbied city and county leaders to forgive roughly half a million dollars in debt on the building’s seller, Duke Energy. Shortly thereafter, Duke transferred the property to the SAHDC with an agreement that the SHA would invest between $50,000 and $75,000 in upgrades to the building.
Despite the fact that there was an informal co-mingling of the organizations for a time – Armstrong served on the SAHDC’s board while also serving as the SHA’s executive director – sources have told the Rant that federal regulators insist the organizations are entirely unaffiliated and that city government has no authority, oversight or responsibility for the nonprofit SAHDC.
The end result was that downtown Sanford’s tallest historic downtown structure was, as of June 1, 2016, entirely in the hands of a two-man board of directors with no accountability to local, state or federal government. Weeks later, it was revealed that plans to eventually renovate at least some of the building’s apartments into high-end condominiums would have to be put on hold until at least 2027 because of low income housing tax credits associated with the property since the 1990s.
Woods himself, the former director who left the organization in July and who served for a time on the Sanford Housing Authority until its membership was dissolved and entirely reconstituted in 2015, has also been at the center of controversy in Sanford more than once, both with regards to the Wilrik and another nonprofit he owns, the Woolford House.
In March of this year, the Sanford Herald reported that Woods blamed the city’s streetscape improvements for water damage which occurred in the building. Woods apparently attempted to bill the city for the damage, but a claim against the city’s insurance carrier was denied. Sources have told the Rant that Wilrik representatives never pushed the claim further.
Woods also reported in March of 2015 that a bus owned by his transportation nonprofit the Woolford House had been vandalized with a racial epithet. No perpetrator has ever been identified, and the nonprofit’s buses remain parked behind the movie theater on Spring Lane.
Woods could not be reached for comment.