CHICAGO — Anntoinette R. Brown got the American Dream — twice. And, though it appears to have been improper to do so, the taxpayers helped pay for it, a Chicago Sun-Times/Better Government Association investigation has found.
Brown, a Cook County government employee, was one of the county’s first residents to qualify for the “American Dream Downpayment Initiative,” a federally funded housing-assistance effort.
The program’s aim: Give first-time home buyers who might not otherwise be able to afford a home a little extra cash — typically $5,000 to $7,000 — to help them make the down payment on a house or condo.
But there was one problem: Brown wasn’t a first-time home buyer at the time she bought her house in Calumet Park with the help of $10,000 in taxpayer money given to her through the American Dream program.
She had bought another home just a couple of weeks earlier, records show — which, under the housing program’s rules, would appear to have made her ineligible for the grant.
Now, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says that, as a result of questions raised by the Sun-Times and BGA, it’s looking into the American Dream grants awarded to Brown and a handful of others in Cook County.
“We are now reviewing the county’s ADDI expenditures,” HUD spokesman Jereon M. Brown, who is no relation to Anntoinette Brown, says in an e-mail. “If fraud has been committed, we will make every effort to recoup the money.”
Anntoinette Brown is one of five current or former Cook County employees approved for American Dream grants through the county’s housing department. In all, federal housing officials passed along $1.2 million in American Dream money to Cook County’s housing agency between 2004 and 2007.
It’s unclear, though, whether all of that money was passed along to home buyers. County records show, for instance, that three first-time home buyers — including a county employee — were each supposed to have been awarded $10,000 grants. But there’s no record on file with the Cook County recorder of deeds to show those people ever got the money.
Brown has a $59,091-a-year government job as an administrative assistant with the county’s Human Rights Commission. She used her American Dream money on Nov. 8, 2006, to help her buy a $120,000 house in the 12600 block of South Ada in Calumet Park, records show.
Weeks earlier, on Oct. 23, 2006, records show Brown had bought another home in the same south suburb, in the 12400 block of South Winchester, for $133,000.
That should have kept the county from giving Brown the grant from the American Dream program, whose rules bar anyone from getting the taxpayer help if they have owned a home within the previous three years.
“I don’t think there was a problem with what I did,” Brown says.
She says she lives in the house on Ada, while her sister lives in the house on Winchester. She also says that she has turned over ownership of the Winchester house to her sister — though Cook County recorder’s office records don’t reflect that.
“My sister bought the house in my name,” says Brown. “I allowed her to. She was homeless at the time. At the time, my credit was good enough.”
Now, though, the house that Brown bought with taxpayer assistance is the subject of a pending foreclosure case.
Another American Dream grant went to Terry M. Gowder Sr., a former Cook County Forest Preserve District employee. He got a $10,000 grant that helped him buy a $130,000 house in the 900 block of Thomas Street in Chicago Heights on Nov. 17, 2009.
But court and property records show that Gowder had owned a home in Hazel Crest until late 2007. So, like Brown, it appears that he should have been barred from getting government help with his down payment because he had owned a home within three years of buying his Chicago Heights house through the American Dream program.
Gowder says he “followed all the rules they had in place.”
He also says he didn’t own the house where he once lived in the 2800 block of Woodworth Place in Hazel Crest, but public records show he did. A woman deeded Gowder the Hazel Crest house in 2003, property records show. Gowder himself also said that he owned the home in a bankruptcy case he filed in 2005. And a foreclosure suit filed against Gowder in February 2007 said he “is the present owner(s) of the subject property” in Hazel Crest.
Gowder lost the Hazel Crest home in October 2007, after failing to respond to the foreclosure suit, according to court records. He refused to discuss the foreclosure case or his participation in the American Dream program, saying questions should be directed to the county and not to him.
Chris Geovanis, a Cook County government spokeswoman, says that neither Brown nor Gowder disclosed to county officials or to their mortgage companies that they’d owned other homes within the three-year window.
Under HUD rules, county officials weren’t required to check into American Dream applicants’ backgrounds. All they had to do was have them fill out an application, see whether they met the program’s income guidelines, based on the information applicants provided, and make sure that other requirements were met.
Now, the county’s housing department has referred Brown’s and Gowder’s purchases to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office “for assessment of legal issues that may be relevant and options for legal follow-up,” Geovanis says.
This isn’t the first time HUD has questioned how Cook County spent federal housing money. In February 2009, a HUD audit found that the county had been slow to distribute money — including American Dream funds — it had been getting from the federal agency, amassing a total of more than $5 million that should have been spent.
“The deficiencies in the county’s program were significant,” the audit concluded. HUD “lacked assurance that program funds were used efficiently and effectively and for eligible activities.”
County officials vowed to fix the problems, and there have been no follow-up audits by HUD since then.