Followers of this blog will recall that I have penned a handful of articles on Seattle’s own Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and its director, Sharon Lee. Ms. Lee runs a $50 million taxpayer-funded operation and hobnobs with the Mayor and City Council. Yet she refuses to respond to simple questions about just what LIHI does with the money. Naturally that makes me suspicious. Doesn’t that make you suspicious too?
I was suspicioning around the Internet the other day when I came across a tasty morsel about LIHI in the June 6, 2013 issue of Seattle’s Northwest Asian News. It’s all about a Facebook popularity contest that nearly scored LIHI a $250,000 prize from Home Depot. Unfortunately, it seems that somebody “sabotaged” the vote, which forced Home Depot to kick LIHI out of the contest:
“LIHI and The Home Depot Foundation were victims of sabotage and fraudulent voting,” said LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee in a statement. “Without our knowledge, someone hired or engaged an overseas company to generate votes. This could have been a competitor — or it could have been an overzealous supporter — but we do not know. We are still investigating.”
Hm. Overzealous supporter you say? What is the likelihood of some “supporter” from outside LIHI – and without their knowledge or permission – plunking down a few thousand dollars to put LIHI over the top? And, seriously, what are the chances of some hater doing that just to make them lose . . . especially when they were already losing?
Last week I got a batch of papers from Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s files. Among these documents was a broadcast e-mail forwarded to O’Brien and hundreds of other public officials by former LIHI Board President, Alan Castle. Castle was passing along a message from Ms. Lee, who is telling recipients to flood their social circle with her appeal to get that vote count up. Do you support veterans? she asks. Then help me score this cash.
You have to admire Ms. Lee’s enthusiasm. It reminds me of my granddaughters trying to raise money for their school. (Do you love me, Grandpa? Buy some of these chocolate widgets. I’ll win an Angry Bird!)
Lee’s chain letter was not against Home Depot’s contest rules, but what Castle and Lee were doing was still unethical, since they were urging people who knew nothing about LIHI to pretend to like it on Facebook. Given that strategy, is it so far-fetched that someone inside the company – hmm, who could it be? – would have paid a Facebook “liking” service to do a lot more of the same thing?
As the NW Asian News article points out, these services operate from overseas. But that’s not as mysterious as it sounds, since they’re still just a click away on the Internet. The reason they operate offshore is so US courts can’t subpoena their records if someone wanted to make a fraud case out of it. There is thus no legal risk to a client for employing such a service to win Facebook contests; the only risk consists in being disqualified from the contest if you get caught doing it. But if the purse is $250,000 and the race is tight – and you’re in second place – a liking service might seem like a good investment. Especially if things like fairness and honesty don’t matter to you.
Let’s apply a bit of game theory and psychology here. Let’s hypothesize that someone at LIHI did hire one of these services. Our hypothetical cheater might figure that even if Home Depot did detect a fishy odor, they’d ignore it, since they have a longstanding relationship with LIHI and they don’t want to imperil that, because it works out for both of them. (And besides, who wants to bust on a sweet little gal who just wants to build houses for homeless veterans?)
And in the actual event, that’s kind of what happened. Home Depot didn’t ignore the cheating. (They couldn’t, of course; it was too obvious.) But they did ignore the cheater.
“We do not know where the voting was coming from exactly,” said Home Depot Corporate Spokesman Stephen Holmes in an email to the Asian Weekly. “I’m honestly not certain how long it occurred, but the irregularities were significant enough that we felt we had no choice other than to remove LIHI from the contest.*
Spokesman Holmes goes on to make it “abundantly clear” that nothing led him or Home Depot to believe that the “voting anomalies” were due to any “intentional effort” by LIHI –or their leadership. (Oh, and did I mention that we just gave LIHI $612,000 in grants for veterans housing? Yes. We did that because we’re good guys.) Which is another example of this phenomenon I see repeatedly with LIHI and its partner organization, SHARE. You can catch these guys in the act, show all the TV reporters, church people, and politicians how SHARE and LIHI mismanage money . . . how they lie . . . how they hurt people. And they’ll still brush it off. –Why? “Because they’re helping homeless people,” they say. “And so we’re helping them.”
I get it. Nobody wants to admit that they’ve been made a fool of. Especially when they were trying to do their brother a good turn.
♫ Notes ♫
*Here’s Home Depot Spokesman Holmes’ statement, parsed in true-blue type for TBQ readers:
We do not know where the voting was coming from exactly. [We know exactly where the voting was coming from.] I’m honestly not certain how long it occurred, [it’s been occurring for a very long time] but the irregularities [the fake votes] are significant enough that we felt we had no choice other than to remove LIHI from the contest [take steps to cover our ass].
Despite the problems with this contest, I believe that Home Depot is making a good-faith effort to support homeless veterans and other good causes. You can read more about that here.
The Home Depot spokesman I contacted regarding this story was not able to immediately determine whether the organization is still hosting Facebook contests.
► Sharon Lee earns $177,000 a year at LIHI. (See a recent tax return for the group here.) She bills herself as the group’s “Executive Founding Director,” but it was in fact founded by Scott Morrow (of SHARE fame), Frank Chopp (speaker of the Washington State House and a leading light in another massive non-profit called Solid Ground) and Michael Reichert (former head of the titanic Catholic Community Services). LIHI was created in 1991 and Lee was moved there from Chopp’s Solid Ground in 1994. LIHI currently has various business associations with both SHARE and Solid Ground, and the group gets significant funding each year, with help from Speaker Chopp in his capacity as head dealmaker in the House. Lee is thus strongly bound to two out of three of LIHI’s founding partners.
Lee is also registered as a lobbyist with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. She does not respond to inquiries about herself or her organization. At least, not from me.
► Alan Castle is no longer on the board at LIHI, according the group’s Web site. He did not immediately respond to inquiry.
► For an example of a typical liking service (and the source of the graphic in the article above) go to BuyCheapSocial.com. And be sure to like The Blog Quixotic.