An investigation into alleged embezzlement from the Wilrik Hotel Apartments in downtown Sanford has been quiet for more than two years, but there are indications that movement in the case could begin soon.
A Lee County grand jury on Dec. 3 issued an indictment charging a Robert William Woods with embezzlement. While the indictment itself has yet to be served and is therefore not a matter of public record, The Rant confirmed its existence on Monday via a search of the Lee County Clerk of Court’s public terminal.
The Rant has been unable to definitively confirm that the indictment in question is related to the situation at the Wilrik, but a Robert Woods was deeply involved with the Sanford Affordable Housing Development Corporation – the nonprofit which owns and operates the historic structure – until just before the alleged embezzlement was reported. The date of offense shown on the clerk of court’s computer – June 1, 2016 – is the same date of offense that’s listed on the Sanford Police Department’s report about the case.
Woods left the organization in mid 2017; the report, which claims $100,000 was embezzled, was filed on Aug. 14 of that year. Sanford Police at the time said they’d referred the case to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.
The Wilrik has been a source of controversy and confusion in Sanford’s affordable housing sector since 2016, 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 that appointment authority, the organization’s dealings and budget are entirely federal. It serves residents in Lee and Harnett counties.
The SAHDC, on the other hand, is an entirely private nonprofit entity.
The split between the two groups was controversial at the time 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 (the same date of offense alleged in both the embezzlement complaint and the indictment issued Dec. 3) 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 has also been at the center of controversy in Sanford more than once, both with regards to the Wilrik and another nonprofit he owned, the Woolford House.
In March of 2017, The Sanford Herald reported that Woods blamed the city’s streetscape improvements for water damage which occurred in the Wilrik 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 bus remained parked behind the movie theater on Spring Lane for several more years. It had been moved as of this writing.
It’s unclear if Woods remains in the area. The North Carolina State Board of Elections shows him registered to vote at a Sanford address, but he has not participated in any elections since 2016. The Rant will continue to follow this story as it develops.