How the Dayton Daily News investigated questions about a local rental assistance program

A local landlord accused of defrauding a federally funded emergency rental assistance program pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday morning to one count of wire fraud.

Antoine Draines entered a guilty plea as part of a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The agreement recommends a prison term of no more than 27 months, supervised release and unspecified fines and restitution.

The guilty plea followed more than a year of Dayton Daily News reporting on how hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money is being spent.

This story is about how that reporting unfolded.

In early 2021, we used Ohio public records laws to obtain records from Montgomery County on how it spent $93 million it received under the federal CARES Act in 2020.

Looking over those records, our reporters noticed rental assistance payments that seemed unusually high for their areas. Upon closer inspection, we found these properties were actually uninhabitable, some of them boarded up with signs from the city saying no one was allowed on the property or with no running water.

The owners of 10 rentals that received federally funded rental assistance paid the money back after being contacted by the Dayton Daily News. This includes seven of the 12 rental units that got at least $10,000 through the program. The total reportedly being reimbursed was $100,775.

Montgomery County and Miami Valley Community Action Partnership — which administered the program on the county’s behalf — immediately tightened program rules.

ExploreFederal rental assistance checks went to landlords of uninhabitable properties, newspaper investigation finds

But our investigation didn’t end there. We looked at the property management company that received the most money through the program. The company, called Freedom for Living Property Management, was paid $410,568 for 68 properties.

Our reporters called or visited all 68 properties — the landlord claimed on half the applications that the renter’s phone was turned off — and found numerous tenants who said they had no idea Freedom for Living received funds on their behalf.

Some of them said part or all of their rent was paid by other programs, such as Section 8. Others paid their rent for those months — some were threatened with eviction if they didn’t — or didn’t live there the entire time on the application.

Freedom for Living declined to comment to the newspaper. But some renters told the Dayton Daily News that the company started contacting them, offering to cover some of their rent and telling them not to talk to anyone about the program.

After the newspaper shared its findings with Greater Dayton Premier Management — which administers the Section 8 program — GDPM scrutinized the company’s paperwork and found what it called suspected fraud. Freedom for Living was removed from the Section 8 program. The agency offered assistance to renters who had to move.

Freedom for Living and its related companies received $368,520 in Section 8 vouchers in 2020.

ExploreDayton Daily News investigates: Landlord received thousands in questionable rental aid

In November the Ohio Auditor of State released an audit saying Montgomery County properly handled CARES Act funds, though records obtained by the Dayton Daily News revealed that the FBI was investigating the rental assistance program.

“This is the kind of project that shows why we need local newspapers,” wrote Ohio Associated Press judges who awarded this project first place in investigative reporting earlier this year. “Watchdog reporting of the highest order.”

Our reporting continues this year with a Dayton Daily News investigative project titled Billions in COVID aid: Where it’s going. Go here for more on this project, including searchable databases showing how your community spent CARES Act funds and now much it is getting in American Rescue Plan funds.

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