Investigation Finds Self-Dealing and Systemic Problems in a Multnomah County Rent Assistance Program

Prosecutors declined to prosecute a county employee for funneling rent assistance money to her brother, citing lax county policies.

The Steel Bridge and Central Eastside. (Brian Burk)

Last year, Multnomah County received an odd application for rent assistance: The tenant was the landlord’s brother. And the landlord was the supervisor of the county rent assistance program.

A co-worker called up the county’s “Good Government Hotline” (888-289-6839), believing the supervisor to have skirted the rules to funnel money to her brother. It kicked off an investigation by first the Multnomah County Auditor’s Office and then the sheriff’s, which found probable cause to charge the supervisor, Stephanie Simmons, with theft and official misconduct.

Simmons was fired by the county last month. She denies the accusations, telling WW that she’s the victim of retaliation by county officials. She’s filed an appeal to win back her job, which the county has forwarded to a hearings panel.

Meanwhile, Simmons has avoided criminal repercussions. Prosecutors say they can’t prove she committed a crime, in part because the county offered little training or documentation of unacceptable conflicts of interest.

A memo obtained by WW declining to prosecute Simmons commends the deputies’ investigation as “broad and thorough.” But it slams county oversight of parts of the program as “lacking or totally absent.”

The County Auditor’s Office released the outlines of the investigation in a statement Thursday evening, but did not name Simmons or detail the ways in which prosecutors said county policies proved a weak defense against self-dealing. But WW requested additional information from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, which late last night provided a memo explaining why prosecutors declined to charge Simmons with crimes.

Simmons worked for the county for eight years before being promoted to manage the Multnomah Stability Initiative in 2022. Her name remains on the county website advertising the program, which says the program “assists homeless and low-income households leave poverty and become self sufficient.” The program offers a litany of services for low-income families, including financial rent assistance.

A county budget document notes that 60% of the money given out through the Multnomah Stability Initiative must go to “culturally specific organizations.” One of those organizations is NAYA, the nonprofit Native American Youth and Family Center. Simmons says her brother had been receiving assistance through NAYA since 2019.

In June 2021, Simmons’ brother applied for $10,000 in rent assistance through NAYA. He claimed on the application to have been renting a room inside Simmons’ townhome for $1,000 a month. He had signed a lease 10 months earlier and had never paid rent.

The application was approved by a NAYA employee, who was later hired by the county, with Simmons as her boss. (Simmons denied this was a quid pro quo hiring to investigators.)

Another employee told investigators that she tried to cancel the application after noticing discrepancies, but that Simmons intervened. The application was approved, and Simmons received $9,000. (Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk told news outlets on Apr. 17 that the sum cited by prosecutors was incorrect. It was actually $10,000.)

It wasn’t the only time Simmons intervened on her brother’s behalf, according to the memo. She messaged the chief of staff for Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann about the county’s denial of Simmons’ brothers’ application for a job at the Juvenile Services Division.

“How can we get this young man...the job he deserves,” she wrote, naming him but not mentioning that he was her brother.

One year later, Simmons’ brother applied for assistance again. The request, later withdrawn, was for $10,000. This time, an employee reported the situation to the county’s anti-fraud hotline.

Simmons tells WW she told her brother to withdraw his application after she read the conflict of interest policy on a different assistance program. “It never even crossed my mind that there was a conflict of interest,” she says. “There’s never been any official training.”

And she denies seeking any favors, saying she was using her brother’s situation to illustrate the importance of equity to county officials. “I was absolutely not seeking a favor. I was seeking justice,” she tells WW.

Still, the complaint triggered an investigation. A detective from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, Dylan Lerch, was assigned to look into it, going as far as getting a search warrant for the brother’s cellphone, which showed it wasn’t being used anywhere near Simmons’ townhome for six months he was purportedly renting a room there. Instead, he was living mostly at his girlfriend’s house. (”That is absolutely not true,” Simmons says. A flooded kitchen forced her family to live in a hotel for four months during that period, she tells WW.)

Detectives also quizzed Simmons about her attempt to get her brother a job. According to prosecutors’ memo, she “justified her advocacy of [her brother] by stating that she would ‘do that largely for everybody in our community.’ When asked if she actually has done that for anyone else, Simmons did not directly answer the question, instead stating that she is ‘always advocating for barrier removals.’”

Detectives referred charges of attempted theft and three counts of official misconduct to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. But prosecutor Austin Buhl declined to press charges.

He explained his reasoning in an eight-page memo dated in January. Simmons’ conduct raised “serious ethical concerns,” he noted, but it wasn’t clear she’d violated county policies.

For one thing, the rent assistance program had no rule requiring that the applicant actually live in the location for which they were applying for rent assistance. And, Buhl noted, the county doesn’t seem to require applicants to disclose whether they hold multiple leases.

That wasn’t all. He found it “problematic” that tenants could get assistance without having paid a single month of rent. And, finally, he noted that the county has “no requirement that landlords receiving monies through these rent relief programs establish they are legitimate landlords” by, say, submitting proof of registration with the city.

“It may very well be that the lease agreement in this case was a guise to support an application for rental assistance, but there is simply no way that we would be able to meet the highest burden of proof in establishing such beyond a reasonable doubt at trial,” he wrote.

As for official misconduct, Buhl said prosecutors would have to prove that Simmons behaved “knowingly,” which would be difficult because the county offered little training or documentation of unacceptable conflicts of interest.

The County Auditor’s Office responded with a recommendation to the county that it “add additional questions to the Code of Ethics Disclosure form, which will help determine with greater reliability whether an employee has a conflict of interest.”

In a statement, the Auditor’s Office said its investigation concluded Simmons “pressured a partner agency to provide financial benefits on behalf of the county employee’s family member.”

Simmons says she was told she was fired because she had failed to report her second job as a landlord to her manager. But she says the real reason stems from a deteriorating relationship with her supervisor. “She’s hated me since there was a discrimination investigation years ago,” Simmons adds.

Now, Simmons says, she has to worry about her reputation as she hunts for a new job. “I am great for the community. I absolutely am. I create wonderful programs. I know what it’s like to be in need and to struggle and then also to be on the other side of that,” she says.

A Multnomah County spokesperson did not comment further on Simmons’ accusations of retaliation. “The county cannot provide any further details as it is a confidential personnel matter,” the spokesperson wrote in an earlier email to WW.

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