Housing records taking steps in right direction

Posted: Tuesday, June 11, 2002

What a difference a few years make.

Tribal members, funding agencies and critics found plenty to question at the Ninilchik Traditional Council just a few years ago. But this year, the tribe is in good graces with agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The change highlights how strained NTC's affairs were as recently as 2000, and how much they have improved under new leadership.

"NTC is extremely confident in our HUD program success, and I am absolutely certain that any allegation against NTC and its HUD programs would be immediately refuted. ...," said current executive director Ivan Encelewski.

He pointed with pride to a Feb. 28 overall performance assessment HUD sent the tribe. In it, William Zachary, director of grants evaluation, wrote:

"The Alaska Office of Native American Programs congratulates you on the following particularly successful projects: The completion and conveyance of one unit to a low-income family and the start of construction on a unit for a disabled, low-income family."

That contrasts with a HUD report dated June 2, 2000, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request. After specialist Betty Higman made a monitoring visit with NTC managers, she wrote the following comment:

"They have divorced themselves from the rest of the world and feel they do not have to be responsible for or work with any agency unless they feel like it. Multiple visits would disturb internal corruption and bring positive information to encourage different ways of operation and build a trustful, honest working relationship."

The NTC began its five-year housing plan with HUD Indian Housing Block Grants on Oct. 1, 1997. The grants, disbursed annually, have ranged from about $100,000 to $250,000. The grants pay for new or remodeled housing, repairs, emergency grants to prevent eviction and miscellaneous services such as safety training and snow shoveling for the elderly.

The project had some trouble getting off the ground. Most of the money the first year went into staff training and planning. HUD nagged the tribe for more concrete results and complained of staff turnover.

Responding to the first performance review, which NTC submitted three months late, HUD administrator Marlin Knight wrote, "We have determined NTC does not appear to be making timely progress toward achieving its goals and objectives as specified in its (Indian Housing Plan)."

NTC's first housing program administrator, Jon L. James, left soon thereafter.

Mike Smith administered the program during nine turbulent months in 1999. He began with enthusiasm for the project and left convinced that the ruling clique was manipulating federal grants for personal financial gain.

"I know HUD wasn't happy with them, but they could never find them out," he said.

Smith and other former employees described the NTC office atmosphere at the time as oppressive and bizarre, with then-director Debra Oskolkoff and her mother, finance officer Marion Oskolkoff, intimidating employees, shredding documents, allowing their family members more access than staff and being obsessed with secrecy to the detriment of getting work done.

"If you weren't a family member, you figured you were basically history," Smith said. "... It was cover your butt in that place, I tell you."

Smith said he was required to submit projects to the NTC board for final approval. He unsuccessfully submitted several from around the tribe's claimed area, which extends from the Kasilof River to Kachemak Bay. He recommended the tribe purchase or remodel existing housing and line up volunteer labor to stretch grant dollars, but the board seemed fixated on building a new house in the central Ninilchik area. He alleged he had a family in Homer that definitely qualified, but the board rejected his proposal.

Bruce Oskolkoff, current board president and Debra's brother, denied the allegations. He said he recollected that few of Smith's proposals reached the final approval stage and that the Homer family failed to meet all the required criteria. The tribe prefers to promote projects throughout its geographic boundaries, not just in Ninilchik proper, to enhance its reputation, he said.

"(Applicants) would certainly never be considered based on proximity (to Ninilchik)," Bruce Oskolkoff said. "That is certainly not true."

In January of 2000, shortly after a shake-up of the board of directors, Debra Oskolkoff fired Smith. The firing came one hour after he filed a grievance with HUD, he said.

Smith's grievance alleged that the office system lacked checks and balances, allowing Marion Oskolkoff to spend money without oversight. Checks were written out of his HUD accounts, he noted, without him being notified. He felt that, as the grant administrator, he could be liable for the lax financial procedures unless he blew the whistle.

In the weeks that followed, Smith filed a complaint about nepotism and wrongful dismissal with the state labor council and consulted an attorney about suing NTC. He also received a call at home from HUD officials, asking about NTC's office procedures, he said.

Smith said he won his labor grievance, which requested Debra Oskolkoff's departure. He alleged that the outcome led to Debra Oskolkoff's decision to step down from the director's position, which she announced that spring.

"There were too many questions she would have had to answer that she didn't want to," Smith said.

Bruce Oskolkoff denied any knowledge of Smith filing a labor grievance.

"If (Smith) did, we certainly never saw it," he said.

Contacted for this story, Debra Oskolkoff issued a statement emphasizing her support for the current NTC management and praising Ivan Encelewski's leadership. She declined to comment on other issues.

The current housing program administrator, Bob Crosby, picked up the reins in March of 2000.

That June, Higman came to the office and conducted her monitoring, concluding the tribe had a "moderate" level of risk as a grant recipient. According to HUD records, problems she flagged included turnover, poor public relations and lack of response to member concerns.

Smith said he talked to HUD about investigating NTC use of funds, but the agency told him it could only initiate a probe if someone such as himself wrote a request. His attorney advised him against doing so.

Ultimately, he decided not to sue the tribe because he did not want to damage its service programs. He was more interested in seeing Debra Oskolkoff step down, which did happen a year later, he said.

During the summer and fall of 2000, Debra Oskolkoff was still in charge and the tribe began paying contractors for work.

In May, it issued a contract to build its first house. The selected recipient was Danielle Nolan, who had served on the NTC board from 1997 to 1998. The contract to build the house went to Deep Creek Construction, owned by Gary Oskolkoff, the brother of Debra and Bruce, who had resigned from the NTC management one year earlier after a controversial stint as board president and paid consultant.

Among others receiving housing aid that year were the sister of another board member and Bruce Oskolkoff himself. The federal grant paid almost $2,000 to weatherize his home, including storm windows and rechinking logs.

"You are not made ineligible just because you are on the board," Bruce Oskolkoff said.

Defending his brother's contract, Bruce said Gary had submitted one of several bids and won the job through normal procedures. At that time, Gary was no longer working for the tribe in any capacity.

Smith agreed. Although he criticizes the Oskolkoff family's actions, he said that Bruce Oskolkoff and the others with ties to NTC management nonetheless met the criteria to qualify and were, to the best of his knowledge, completely legal.

Board member Greg Encelewski Sr. said it is easy for outsiders to imagine nepotism in such a close-knit small town.

"Regardless of how you put it, they are going to be related one way or the other," he said.

HUD officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, corroborated that view. As long as projects meet guidelines participating tribes set, the agency does not limit dispersal of either benefits or contracts to family members or others with potential conflicts of interest.

Gary Oskolkoff's foray into building HUD homes appears to be a one-shot deal.

Nolan said the construction was completed, but the project hit several snags and was not entirely satisfactory.

"I'm in it," she said. "It took 18 months instead of the normal three."

Nolan said three people bid the job and, as far as she knows, Deep Creek Construction had the lowest responsive bid. Later, however, the project was amended and had cost overruns. The total price tag, including paying off the land, came to $112,000.

"After my situation, even with one of Gary's brothers on the board, I don't think they will be looking to Gary to build again," she said. "He contracted it out too much. I don't think he really knew what was going on."

Efforts to contact Gary Oskolkoff for this story were unsuccessful.

As the 2002 construction season begins, NTC has a second house completed, in the Kasilof area, and is preparing to break ground on a third and fourth. Recipients of the newer projects have no direct ties to the management and people expressed overall satisfaction with the program's current direction.

HUD confirmed it now considers NTC a low-risk grant recipient, with all paperwork current and satisfactory.

Nolan said she is better off in the long run and, despite the headaches a year ago, is happy with her new home, the improvement it has meant to her children's standard of living and her financial outlook.

Smith said he, too, is hearing positive responses from the community about NTC's new managers.

"It isn't perfect yet, but at least they have a different breed in there," he said.

He praised the current housing program administrator and said the program has accomplished a lot of good for deserving people.

NTC is working on the next five-year housing plan.

"It's come a long way in a short period of time. It has an excellent reputation," Bruce Oskolkoff said.

The next round of housing projects will use what has been learned to fine-tune and expand the programs. After years of trying, the tribe's housing services finally are off the ground, he said.

"It is doing much better than we had anticipated just a few years ago."

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