DRACUT -- It was just a couple years ago that the Dracut Housing Authority Board of Commissioners tried to oust Executive Director Mary Karabatsos.

The plan -- engineered by then-chairman Ken Martin and commissioners Brian Bond and Ken Cunha -- backfired and Karabatsos retained her $78,000-a-year position.

Now it's Karabatsos taking the initiative, as she's been named one of four finalists for the executive director's position at the Medford Housing Authority.

"I've always wanted to get to a larger authority," said Karabatsos, who worked at the Lowell Housing Authority for more than two decades before heading the DHA. "It would be a great fit for me."

Karabatsos emphasized that what previously transpired in Dracut had "absolutely nothing, honestly" to do with her seeking another public housing job that could give her a $22,000 pay raise if she lands it.

"I'm very happy in Dracut and the board and I are working very well together," said the Lowell resident.

Russell Taylor, one of Karabatsos' strongest supporters on the DHA board, isn't buying it.

During the summer of 2011, Taylor was one of only two commissioners who favored renewing Karabatsos' contract.

During the Aug. 23 meeting while Taylor was on vacation, Martin, Bond and Cunha voted to form a search committee and advertise for a new executive director.


Karabatsos, who was "blindsided," reapplied and was eventually rehired after public outcry from DHA residents who demanded she be retained.

"So, no, I can't blame her for looking elsewhere, as she was nearly booted out of the job," said Taylor. "Loyalty goes both ways. But I would be very disappointed if Mary left, because she has done a phenomenal job."

The following summer, for example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the DHA a near perfect score, 98 out of 100, following a review.

It was widely alleged, but never proven, that Martin, Bond and Cunha were doing the bidding of former Lowell Housing Authority Executive Director Michael McLaughlin, a Dracut resident.

Cellphone records reviewed by The Sun illustrated that McLaughlin spoke with Martin 394 times between January-October 2011 and Selectman John Zimini, who also has close ties to McLaughlin, 217 times during the same period.

McLaughin, 67, was charged by the federal government late Wednesday with allegedly understating to state and federal regulatory authorities his salary as the former head of the Chelsea Housing Authority by as much as $120,000 per year for four years, claiming to be making half of the $324,000 he actually pocketed.

McLaughlin now faces up to 80 years in prison and fines up to $1 million if convicted.

McLaughlin, and to a lesser extent Martin, have become poster children for fraud and abuse in the state's public-housing system.

Martin has drawn the ire of state regulatory officials who've questioned how he can effectively serve as executive director of both the Ayer and Methuen Housing Authorities. His combined pay is more than $184,000 a year, making him the highest-paid public housing official in the state.

Saying the state's public-housing system needs improved professionalism, transparency and accountability, Gov. Deval Patrick filed legislation Jan. 10 that would eliminate 240 local public housing authorities and replace them with six regional agencies aimed at ridding the system of corruption and saving taxpayer dollars.

Coincidentally, McLaughlin's political ally, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, shocked the state's political establishment by announcing just several days ago he will not be a candidate for governor in 2014.

Like the DHA, and other housing authorities, the Medford authority has been mired in controversy.

It is currently being run by an interim executive director, Michael Pacious, after the executive director, Robert Covelle, resigned in May 2012. Attorney General Martha Coakley later fined Covelle $5,000, and barred him from public employment for six years, for violating state purchasing laws. 

That recent history doesn't bother Karabatsos.

"Medford is doing all the right things now," said Karabatsos. "They are looking for integrity."

Besides Karabatsos, the other finalists are John Coddington of the Everett Housing Authority; Joseph MacRitchie of the Quincy Housing Authority; and Peter Proulx of the Fall River Housing Authority.

Karabatsos and Proulx have already been interviewed. Coddington and MacRitchie are scheduled to be interviewed Saturday.

A MHA administrator said a final selection could be made next month.

Follow Christopher Scott on Twitter @cscottlowellsun.