2 plead guilty to stealing housing funds; Former Lancaster officials changed tenants’ applications for federal aid

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 22A

Two former officials of Lancaster’s public housing office pleaded guilty Friday to federal charges that they stole more than $90,000 in government funds through a scheme to make tenants look poorer than they actually were.

The two ex-employees are Sharon Morris, 67, and Catherine Massingill, 40. Ms. Morris was a 22-year employee of the city of Lancaster and headed the Lancaster Housing Office from 1988 until her retirement in January 1999. Ms. Massingill was her assistant.

According to the U.S. attorney’s office, the scheme began in 1994, when the two employees determined they could provide false information to get more federal housing funds.

When potential Section 8 housing tenants applied for government assistance, Ms. Morris and Ms. Massingill changed the financial information they reported. The changes made tenants eligible for more government money; some suddenly qualified for a 100 percent federal payment of their monthly rent.

Ms. Morris and Ms. Massingill paid the tenants’ rent with the extra government money their changes produced but continued to ask the tenants to pay what would have been their share of the rent. The two women kept the tenants’ payments for themselves.

The scheme continued until 1999, a federal investigator said.

“There was nobody watching them,” said Bob Kemins, a special assistant U.S. attorney attached to the Housing Fraud Initiative Task Force in Arlington. “Morris ran the office. No one was looking over their shoulder.”

Mr. Kemins said that the tenants faced no loss of money because they were paying the amount they should have if their income had been correctly reported. The two employees even gave receipts for the rental payments they received, he said.

“They both said, ‘We can’t believe it got so out of hand,'” Mr. Kemins said.

Ms. Morris and Ms. Massingill were originally indicted in January on an additional conspiracy charge. That charge will be dropped in exchange for the two guilty pleas to theft of government program funds.

Sentencing is set for July 2. Each woman faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. As part of the guilty plea, they will be required to repay federal housing money they stole.