By: Richard L. Smith
State officials reported that an ex-manager with the City of Camden Housing Authority has pleaded guilty in connection with the authority giving Section 8 funds, designed to subsidize the rent of low-income tenants, to a family member who is a landlord, and to a real-estate company she established and controlled.
According to Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin, Traci Willis, 55, of Mount Laurel, pleaded guilty on Wednesday, June 21, in state Superior Court in Camden County to an accusation charging her with one count of third-degree conspiracy to tamper with public records.
Under the plea agreement she reached with prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA), she also entered a consent order that includes a lifetime ban on public office and a recommended sentence of probation conditioned on her serving up to 364 days in the Camden County Jail.
Attorney General Platkin said Willis had been charged following an investigation by OPIA’s Corruption Bureau and the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“A job in public service is not an opportunity to inappropriately cash in. This defendant used her control of taxpayer funds to dispense public dollars for the benefit of herself, her company and a family member,” said Attorney General Platkin.
“The collaboration between my office and the HUD Office of the Inspector General was critical to shining a light on this scheme and bringing this defendant to justice.”
“Ms. Willis had undisclosed conflicts of interest in making these payments, which she then tried to cover up using sham paperwork,” said OPIA Executive Director Thomas Eicher.
“The law requires public officials who have authority over public funds to act honestly to benefit the public and not themselves and their relatives.”
“We take conflicts of interest and other frauds committed against HUD, our public housing authorities, and our rent subsidy programs seriously and will continue to work with our state and local partners to protect the integrity of funds dedicated to support low- and extremely low-income families,” said Christina Scaringi, Special Agent in Charge of the HUD Office of Inspector General.
“None of this would be possible without the dedicated cooperation of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, OPIA detectives and the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.”
Willis was the director of the Camden Housing Authority’s Housing Choice Voucher Program from 2000 to 2019, a role in which she oversaw and approved the distribution of Section 8 funds to city landlords and property management companies.
The investigation revealed that she directed tens of thousands of dollars in Section 8 subsidized-housing funds to a Camden landlord relative and to a limited-liability company she had founded in 2015 and later shared with that relative.
It is alleged that from July 2015 through May 2019, Willis’s office issued more than 30 checks for a combined $65,000 to her relative. Additionally, her office entered into Section 8 contracts with her company and issued roughly 35 checks totaling about $93,000 to her company.
The investigation found Willis should have disclosed to the housing authority her personal interest and that of her relative in the company she founded, and she should have recused herself from any official involvement with that business.
Authority policies prohibited her from engaging in activities that would benefit a family member, associate, business partner, or herself personally.
But Willis never disclosed these interests or conflicts, and when Camden Housing Authority officials found out about them in 2019, she was fired.
The OPIA investigation revealed that, in a bid to challenge her termination, Willis generated bogus paperwork giving the appearance that she had offloaded her ownership stake in her company.
She produced a copy of a “membership interest transfer agreement,” dated December 2016, falsely purporting to transfer ownership of the business from her to a company employee.
But the investigation determined Willis was listed as the registered owner on all company filings with the state from 2016 to 2020, while the company was receiving numerous Housing Choice Voucher program payments into bank accounts Willis controlled.