Friday, March 14, 2008

HUD Secretary Draws Strong Criticism at Hearing

WASHINGTON — Several Democratic senators sharply criticized the secretary of housing and urban development on Wednesday, warning that accusations of wrongdoing threatened to undermine his leadership.

The Justice Department and the housing department’s inspector general are investigating whether the secretary, Alphonso R. Jackson, improperly steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in government contracts to friends in New Orleans and the Virgin Islands.

On Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers also raised concerns about accusations that Mr. Jackson threatened to withdraw federal aid from the director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority after he refused to turn over a $2 million property to a politically connected developer.

The lawmakers pointed to an e-mail exchange in January 2007 between two senior HUD officials who discussed making the Philadelphia housing chief, Carl R. Greene, unhappy by taking away his federal aid.

Mr. Jackson, who appeared before the Senate banking committee on Wednesday, said he could not discuss the e-mail messages because they were linked to a lawsuit filed against HUD by Mr. Greene. Last year Mr. Jackson denied complaints of favoritism, telling senators, “I do not interfere with any contract that is given in HUD, period.”

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the banking committee, told Mr. Jackson on Wednesday that he remained “deeply troubled” by the reports of impropriety.

Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said controversy had been “swirling around your stewardship of this department for far too long.”

“This kind of stuff undermines public confidence in our officials,” Mr. Casey said of the e-mail messages, which were first published by The Washington Post.

In the messages dated Jan. 12, 2007, Orlando J. Cabrera and Kim Kendrick, two assistant secretaries at HUD, discussed Mr. Greene.

“Would you like me to make his life less happy? If so, how?” wrote Mr. Cabrera, who has since left the department.

Ms. Kendrick responded with a smiley face.
“Take away all of his federal dollars?” she asked.
Mr. Cabrera wrote back: “Let me look into that possibility.”

In February, Jerry Brown, a HUD spokesman, denied that Mr. Jackson had attacked Mr. Greene for refusing to turn over a parcel of land to Kenny Gamble, the soul songwriter and producer. Mr. Brown said Philadelphia stood to lose millions of dollars in financing because the city had failed to meet the requirements of a decade-old housing plan.

“There was no retaliation,” Mr. Brown said. “These two things had nothing whatsoever to do with each other.”

Mr. Greene denied that his department had failed to meet a federal requirement that 5 percent of its public housing be made accessible for the disabled. He described HUD’s decision to withhold aid as “a vendetta because I would not participate in a corrupt scheme.”

Concerns about favoritism in the distribution of HUD contracts first arose in April 2006 after a speech by Mr. Jackson. The secretary had said he canceled a contract for a company after its president told him that he did not like President Bush. Mr. Jackson later said he had made the story up.

Federal officials are investigating whether Mr. Jackson steered work at the Virgin Islands housing authority and rebuilding work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to friends. HUD officials have declined to comment on those matters because they are under investigation.

At the hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Jackson said the judge overseeing the lawsuit filed by Mr. Greene had asked the parties not to discuss that case. “I just do not feel at ease discussing this, given the judge’s request,” he said.

Two Republican senators, Mel Martinez of Florida and Wayne Allard of Colorado, said they understood Mr. Jackson’s reluctance to discuss the matter.

Mr. Martinez, a former HUD secretary who brought Mr. Jackson to the department as his deputy, described his successor as a diligent and honest man caught between his desire to respect the judge and the senators.

“You’re in an untenable position here,” Mr. Martinez said. “I know you’re a good man, and I know you’re trying hard to do a good job.”

Some senators dismissed the notion that the judge had barred Mr. Jackson from speaking.
Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said his staff had researched the matter and found that there was no such order. Mr. Specter, who tried to mediate the dispute between HUD and the Philadelphia housing authority, said he would ask Mr. Jackson about the issue in a hearing on Thursday.