In a major step toward rebuilding the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the agency has named Barbara Adams, general counsel for the State of Pennsylvania under former Gov. Ed Rendell, as its new top lawyer.

As PHA's new general counsel, Adams, 59, of Philadelphia, fills a position that has been vacant since 2008.

Michael P. Kelly, PHA's administrative receiver, said Friday that Adams becomes the "heart, soul, and backbone of our recovery effort."

Former Executive Director Carl R. Greene dismantled much of PHA's legal apparatus, outsourcing most work to the city's top law firms. From 2007 to 2010, PHA spent $38.5 million on outside legal services, an amount the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general said was outrageous.

In an interview, Adams said one of her first tasks would be rebuilding PHA's law department and seeing what work that had been assigned to outside attorneys could be handled by staff.

"We will also take a fresh look and establish guidelines for how and when PHA uses outside counsel and clearly communicate what work can be billed by attorneys," she said.

This year, the HUD inspector general determined that PHA often had not justified its spending for outside lawyers. Adams said the agency would review invoices from past years to see whether lawyers had properly explained their work.

"My first reaction is that there were careless articulations, to put it mildly, for what kind of legal services were being billed for," Adams said.

Before joining Rendell's cabinet in 2005, Adams was a partner at Duane Morris L.L.P. She specialized in public finance and affordable housing. As general counsel for the state, she managed a staff of more than 500 attorneys.

Adams, who begins Aug. 1, will earn $160,000 a year. She said she wanted to work at PHA to do something "socially useful and socially helpful."

As PHA's general counsel, she will also take on the position of ethics officer for the agency.

Greene was able to run PHA autocratically because the agency lacked a system of checks and balances run out of the general counsel's office, according to former and current employees, as well as past PHA commissioners.

"Barbara will accelerate the pace of positive change that Michael Kelly has initiated at PHA," said PHA Commissioner Estelle Richman, who was in Rendell's cabinet as secretary of the state's Department of Public Welfare.

PHA, which receives $400 million annually in federal and state funding, is the nation's fourth-largest public housing authority. Last September, Greene was fired after PHA's board discovered that the agency had settled for $648,000 three sexual-harassment complaints against him.

Afterward, HUD pressured the PHA board to resign and appointed Kelly and Richman to run the agency.

Gloria Guard, the former director of the People's Emergency Center, a nonprofit servicing homeless families, said Adams brings a deep commitment to helping the poor.

"She will put the full force of that commitment to assure that the tenants at PHA will live in safe and healthy housing, and get them the support they need," said Guard, who has worked with Adams for many years.

On other matters, Kelly said the Philadelphia Housing Authority Development Corp., an affiliate that acts as a developer on projects, had just filed tax returns after losing its nonprofit status in June. The IRS has not determined whether the development corporation, which has $66 million in assets, will regain its tax-exempt status.

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659, jlin@phillynews.com, or @j_linq on Twitter.