Notes From the Underground

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Sitting in his living room in Bay Ridge, his tabby cat lolling at his feet, Jack Ballinger has become the self-appointed scourge of the New York City Housing Authority.

His fax newsletter is a hotsheet for the legions of civil servants at NYCHA, which manages public housing for about 500,000 poor and working-class New Yorkers. Sexual harassment allegations? Stolen memos and lost files? Epic tales of patronage, wife-beating and politically charged office affairs? The Housing Spotlight has got it all, with nudge-and-a-wink hints of who’s doing wrong and a knowing tone that makes it Page Six for housing bureaucrats.

“It’s a great country,” he laughs. “I’ve got a fax machine, and we pay $30 a month for unlimited calls.”

Ballinger’s anonymous faxes have developed a loyal following among NYCHA staff, who read the newsletter under their desks and covertly e-mail him new dirt. “The Spotlight has been a lifeblood for those of us who are civil servants,” says one of his tipsters. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, somebody’s out there.’ I didn’t know who he was, but I was so happy. He’s the sanest, fiercest, most fabulous man.”

The newsletter selects its targets with care. Ballinger, himself an ex-NYCHA employee, is a careful editor, focusing on the follies of the Authority’s political appointees and higher-ups, especially when they torment their underlings.

That’s because for the 52-year-old Ballinger, it’s personal. Last month he went public with a 25-page indictment, complete with dates, names and details, of two corruption scandals he witnessed at the agency. He signed his name to the testimonial, posted it on his web site (www.spacelab.net/ ~guijackb/spot)–annotated with memos and taped phone conversations–and faxed it to more than 100 politicians and investigative agencies nationwide.

How did this man, a former steamfitter who admits he got his NYCHA job through a local politician, come to spend four years trying to get his allegations taken seriously? And, given the gravity of his accusations, the mysterious suicides that he’s written about and the possibility of libel, why did he decide to reveal his identity?

He’s not on a crusade. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care much for abstract ideas of taxpayer accountability or the public good. “I wouldn’t care if they stole $600 million,” he insists. “I’m no reformer.” He rarely mentions the hundreds of thousands of tenants that suffer the consequences of wasted money and corruption. Instead, he spends nearly all his time–and, by his account, put himself in physical danger–to avenge NYCHA’s working stiffs. “It’s what they did to the little guys,” he says. “They’ve screwed too many people’s lives over.”

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Ballinger’s transformation from steamfitter to whistleblower began in 1995, when, after a few months working at NYCHA’s central office, he says he stumbled on a big problem: All the information normally kept on one agency database- everything from the number of workers to insurance records and permits-was missing from $50 million worth of contracts for security systems like intercoms and lights. The work had no documentation, making it impossible to tell if it had been inspected.

To Ballinger, the situation stank. “I was once a contractor myself, and if you tell me that nobody’s going to check on my work or my materials–and that you’re going to pay me for top-class work–I’ll be a very happy man,” he says. But when he pointed the problem out to his bosses, he was promptly transferred to Coney Island.

There in the field office, he was approached by a roofing inspector who had been taking bribes and was terrified of getting caught. He asked for Ballinger’s help in going straight, and the two wound up coordinating an investigation between NYCHA’s Inspector General office and about 12 inspectors. Sometimes contractors would offer the inspectors outright bribes, but the more subtle deals involved officials in NYCHA management, reports one contract administrator turned double agent. Ballinger says that the sting lasted about five months in 1997.

But the inspectors began to suspect that their work was being leaked. They also say that the IG instructed them to target new contractors, instead of perennial favorites that they knew were on the take. Since then, says Ballinger, nothing has happened. The investigation into the missing contracts has apparently been closed, and Ballinger thinks the bribery investigation has been botched. The IG’s office never questioned him about the missing data, and still hasn’t spoken to men who would provide crucial testimony and documentation through their daily log books.

“The minute we received [Ballinger’s complaints], we took them seriously. We turned it over to the IG,” says NYCHA spokesman Hilly Gross. “The minute his findings become public, we’ll make them public.” But it’s hard to determine where the investigation stands. Although there are rumors that the investigation is ongoing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds NYCHA, recently told Ballinger that the case was closed last year.

Ballinger’s accusations may sometimes sound over the top. He says his car has been forced off the road, and mentions three unexplained deaths–two apparently suicides–of NYCHA employees who were aware of his investigations. But he provides plenty of corroborating evidence, and reporters have confirmed his stories. Last year, Channel 9’s investigative team aired a series based on his sources. And the Spanish-language daily Noticias del Mundo ran a two-week series in May focusing on another Ballinger expos, NYCHA’s $100 million sweetheart lease on a building recently purchased by a friend of Authority board member Kalman Finkel.

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By last year, Ballinger was on worker’s comp from his NYCHA job and frustrated that his undercover work was stalled in official channels. He decided to bypass the investigative apparatus and talk directly to the people that would know and care about what the agency was all about. The Spotlight was born.

What’s most interesting about this scandal sheet is the insight it provides into the institutional psyche of the 15,000-employee Housing Authority. In the Spotlight’s pages, this massive bureaucracy, nationally recognized as the country’s best public housing authority, is a poisonously paranoid place. Morale is devastated by infighting. Low-level corruption is rampant, and retaliatory transfers and demotions are constants. Nervous breakdowns at Ballinger’s NYCHA seem to be as common as office colds. That his reports have satisfyingly soap opera-like continuity only adds to the can’t-put-it-down quotient. Regular characters like Kalman “The Fink” Finkel re-appear with satisfying frequency.

Although his prose tends toward the overwrought, this Matt Drudge of the Housing Authority has clearly hit a nerve. The Housing Spotlight is contraband at NYCHA, and being caught with the tipsheet means trouble. Employees report that higher-ups hang around the fax machines on Tuesdays, waiting to intercept it.

Surreptitiously, his fans strike back. “I put them in the ladies’ room,” says one NYCHA worker. “Every Tuesday you see women from other departments in our ladies’ room. Or I put them in the freezer, and strange women come to the department asking, ‘Do you have any ice? Do you have any frozen peas?’ I’d photocopy 100 of them, leave stacks in elevators, send ’em down the post office chute, leave them in the Dunkin’ Donuts. They’d all be gone. That’s how we knew it was powerful.”

And the Spotlight’s reports have repercussions. Ballinger was the first to write about a NYCHA sexual harassment case that many point to as the scandal that forced out former board chair Ruben Franco.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used to keep a close eye on NYCHA; in fact, he prosecuted one of the Authority’s most famous corruption scandals in the 1980s. But NYCHA staff, many of whom initially supported Giuliani, say the mayor has betrayed the agency by refusing to investigate and punish corruption, and by stocking the Authority with patronage appointees. “It’s worse than it’s ever been,” says one secretary. “Giuliani doesn’t give a shit. He’s brought in people who know nothing about housing, and they’re not taking care of the agency.” In the end, it’s the city’s public housing tenants that must cope with locks that break, sprinklers that don’t put out fires, and asbestos that isn’t properly removed.

As for Ballinger, he has hopes for the new NYCHA chair, John Martinez, but promises to keep dogging upper management. He now gets about a half-dozen emails every day.

“This is my life,” he says. “So many people are upset in their jobs, and they’re calling me, crying over the phone. I’ll get more information every week, I’ll keep faxing, and eventually, hopefully, we’ll have some sort of investigation into this. I keep telling them–if they treated people right, I’d be out of business.”