Stark Housing Authority contracts investigation continues nearly a year later

·7 min read

CANTON ‒ Two men entangled in a federal probe of "possible irregularities" in Stark Metropolitan Housing Authority work contracts were recently sent to prison for bank robbery.

Earlier this month, Brian Spenny, 60, of Massillon, was sentenced in Summit County Common Pleas Court to 8 to 12 years in prison on robbery and kidnapping charges for a Dec. 10 holdup of a KeyBank in Northfield in northern Summit County. John Dampman, 46, of the same address as Spenny, was sentenced in April to as many as three years in prison for the same heist.

In December, Spenny and Dampman's bank robbery arrests were widely reported by Cleveland TV news stations and the Akron Beacon Journal ― likely because those stories included dramatic bodycam video of an officer fighting with Spenny, as money was on the ground in the parking lot of MGM Northfield Park, and another one that showed Dampman hiding under a porch.

Three months prior, The Repository had reported Spenny and Dampman's involvement in two companies ― Cooling Contractor Services and Dampman Contracting ― which had bid or received contracts last year for work such as cleaning, clearing gutters and trimming shrubs at public housing sites in Stark County.

Cooling Contractor Services was paid $121,675 in the spring and summer of 2021 — until it was discovered the business had apparent ties to then-Housing Authority Development Director Ashley Currence.

In early August 2021, the Housing Authority stopped doling out payments to Cooling. Dampman Contracting, which had also begun bidding for work, wasn't awarded any contracts because by then the Housing Authority had launched an internal investigation.

Currence abruptly resigned during the probe.

By October, the Housing Authority had turned over its findings to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Inspector General. Nearly a year later, its investigation is ongoing.

That agency won't comment on or confirm the existence of investigations until they are completed — but its work can result in criminal charges, civil recovery or administrative actions against agencies.

A Repository review of Housing Authority records, previously given to federal investigators, provides some insight into the depth and breadth of what former Executive Director Herman Hill referred to as "possible irregularities" and further details the two men's roles in the suspicious public housing work contracts.

Herman Hill
Herman Hill

What do the housing records show?

Hundreds of pages of agency documents, photos and emails, turned over to the Office of Inspector General, reveal that:

  • Based on payroll records, the only employees of Cooling Contractor Services were Spenny, Dampman and Nicholas Cooling.

  • Cooling had requested and received ongoing partial payments for work it claimed to have done, though typically payments are made only after a job is finished on such contracts.

  • More contracts were to be given to the companies, including plans for a five-year porch painting deal at $90,000 per year.

Connections amongst a group of five

It's unclear why the companies began to bid on Housing Authority work, beginning in February 2021.

However, the agency began to scrutinize the contracts shortly after Currence phoned Canton police on July 20, 2021. She alleged her husband, John Gantz, had assaulted her and Nicholas Cooling, owner of Cooling Contractor Services, while at Currence's house on 22nd Street NW.

Using public records, the Housing Authority in its internal probe and The Repository — in a previous story — unraveled connections between Currence, Gantz, Spenny, Dampman and Cooling, along with other concerns.

The latter four had all lived in Erie, Pennsylvania. Gantz and Cooling shared a cellphone number. Currence had signed bid tabulation sheets and other work documents and conducted follow-up worksite visits on Cooling projects, which would be an apparent conflict of interest. Dampman and Spenny both had long criminal records in Erie. In fact, Spenny was labeled a "career" bank robber when he was sent to prison in 2014 for a pair of bank robberies.

Neither Spenny, nor Dampman, now in prison, responded to requests for the story last year. Currence, Gantz and Cooling did not respond to requests for comments for this story or the last one.

In an Aug. 3, 2021 email to Currence, Hill noted Gantz was listed as statutory agent for Cooling Contractor Services in state business records. "Is this the same John Gantz you are married to?" he asked.

No reply from Currence was found among records SMHA accumulated.

By then, the Housing Authority's internal review had also found: Cooling's business address did not exist; the company was created only a week before it received its first contract and was using starter bank checks; gutter cleaning work had been assigned for sites that didn't need it, were outfitted with leaf guards, or had no trees; and bushes that were to have been trimmed, were not.

Three days later, the Housing Authority requested a meeting with Cooling. That same day, Aug. 6, 2021, Nicholas Cooling emailed the Housing Authority to complain he was waiting to be paid for an invoice submitted weeks prior.

"Are you all on the same page there or not?" he wrote.

Cooling went on to point out he'd been paid for more recent work he said he performed at an agency-owned house on 41st Street NW. It's the same house The Repository had reported was purchased, then rented to a woman that Hill knew through youth basketball teams.

SMHA
SMHA

"You know, the one the (Repository) is always writing about," Cooling wrote. "(You're) withholding money for work done, but paying for work immediately for issues that are publicly in the paper."

On Aug. 12, Currence resigned.

In her resignation letter, she stated she was leaving her $77,000 a year job to teach at Malone University.

On Aug. 24, Housing Authority Contracting and Procurement Specialist Anthony De Tota sent a duplicate "notice of cure" email and certified letter to Cooling Contractor Services. In it, he notified the company it had 10 days to complete the unfinished work it had been paid for.

"SMHA considers your work ... grossly inadequate," the letter stated.

Why is the HUD Office of Inspector General involved?

The HUD Office of Inspector General was alerted because most Housing Authority funding comes from HUD's federal tax dollars.

The Stark agency runs 2,5000 public housing units for the poor and oversees the county's Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) program that pays landlords who lease to low-income tenants.

Although the Housing Authority had paid Cooling Contractor Services $121,675, it did not pay another $58,000 worth of Cooling invoices, because Hill had directed all payments to cease.

Ashley Wright
Ashley Wright

Emails to and from Currence, or copied to her last year, detail Cooling Contractor Services projects in 2021 — some appeared to have been placed on hold or canceled during the internal review:

  • A $10,200 job to clean Cherrie Turner Towers apartments.

  • Gutter clean outs at various sites for $76,000, part of a three-year contract.

  • A second gutter clean out award for another $57,000, the same day it was named low bidder on a $35,000 deal to trim shrubs.

  • A $73,000 quote provided for power washing, in which Currence advised she should be the sole contact person.

  • Staining work at Meadowview, though it's unclear what that entailed.

  • A low bid for "fill and seed" work, which prompted an email to Currence from one of the losing bidders, Todd's Enviroscapes, questioning how Cooling could have turned in such a low bid.

  • Address plate installation at Jackson Sherrick apartments.

  • Chimney cap replacement for $1,800.

  • A five-year contract for porch painting, at $90,000 per year for various sites.

Even before the internal review began, some Housing Authority employees, including site managers, began to wonder about the lack of progress of work Cooling had been hired to do.

On June 25, 2021, Malinda Broyles at Linwood Acres, emailed Currence about gutters and downspouts that were not cleaned or repaired at her 112-unit complex in southwest Canton.

"We just checked our records and Linwood was never included for cleaning," Currence explained in her reply to Broyles, though Linwood was among sites listed in the project description provided bidders.

On several occasions, Currence intervened via agency email on Cooling's behalf, regarding finances. In one instance, she advised a purchase order had been created, so it was OK to pay the company. In another, she asked how soon an approved payment would hit Cooling's bank account.

The Repository had sought the Housing Authority internal review documents on several occasions in the past. However, Hill —who left to take the executive director's job in Akron earlier this year — told the news outlet that no such records exist because they were given to HUD.

Following Hill's departure in April, the Repository renewed its request. The Housing Authority provided a redacted version of the requested records for in-office review two weeks ago.

Reach Tim at 330-580-8333 ortim.botos@cantonrep.com.On Twitter: @tbotosREP

This article originally appeared on The Repository: HUD investigation of Stark Housing Authority contracts continues