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A HUD Roadshow Raises Questions of Conflict

December 27, 1987|CLAIRE SPIEGEL | Times Staff Writer

The campaign that came to Los Angeles, among other cities, was designed to promote public awareness of fair housing laws. Critics contend that it did little more than boost the public image of the secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel R. Pierce has periodically traveled around the country promoting the nation's fair housing laws with parties, balloon shows, press conferences, newspaper ads and billboards carrying his picture.

About $1 million was spent on a three-year promotional roadshow that was staged in eight cities, including Los Angeles.

However, to save money, public funds were not used to pay the expenses of the public relations campaign. Instead, contributions were solicited from developers, realtors and contractors who do business with HUD and who in some cases had projects awaiting HUD approval.

There has been no public accounting of the money that was raised, but records of the event in Los Angeles show that expenses totaled about $300,000--and some of the bills still have not been paid, vendors said.

Blunt Demands

In some cases, developers received rather blunt demands to contribute a minimum of $3,000. But Tom Safran, for example, who manages hundreds of HUD subsidized rental units, sent a check for $100--only to have it returned with a letter chiding him for not contributing more.

"$100 is on the ridiculous side," the letter stated. "It does not pay for the time and energy we have used to create an opportunity for you to be identified with this project. . . . With your involvement in housing and benefits from doing business with HUD, you should want to make a better impression. . . ."

The National Campaign of Public/Private Partnerships for Fair Housing was designed to promote public awareness of fair housing laws that prohibit discrimination in the housing market. However, critics contend that it did little more than boost Pierce's public image while disguising his poor performance in fighting for tougher fair housing legislation.

The campaign was staged in Baltimore, Dallas, New York, Oakland, Columbus, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Los Angeles between 1983 and 1985. President Reagan endorsed it at a White House press conference, expressing his thanks "for the involvement of thousands of contractors, realtors, building managers and others who make up the housing industry."

In keeping with Reagan's push to involve private enterprise in government activities, HUD's fair housing campaign was intended to be a joint effort of government officials and the private sector.

As a result, as one official summed up in a HUD newsletter: "Department staff worked hand in hand with our private sector partners."

However, critics say that a troubling coziness was created by this arrangement, raising questions involving conflict of interest and public disclosure.

'A Potential Conflict'

"There's clearly a potential conflict when policy makers in an agency request private money to achieve a goal and the money comes from people who want something from these policy makers," said Walter Zelman, executive director at Common Cause in Los Angeles, a public interest watchdog group.

"At a minimum, you ought to have public disclosure (of the money collected). . . . And it's arguable whether there ought to be something considerably stronger, like a ban."

The fair housing campaign was the idea of Pierce's former executive assistant, Deborah Gore Dean, now a HUD consultant who was recently nominated to the post of assistant secretary for community planning and development with authority over about $3.7 billion in federal funds.

Dean said in a telephone interview from Washington that promoting fair housing is such an uphill battle that "you try just about every avenue." She said she decided to enlist support from realtors and the HUD housing industry because they have "a responsibility" to help.

Dean acknowledged that she and other HUD officials helped raise money for the fair housing campaign, but she stressed that they did not personally collect the funds. In order "to protect everybody and keep it legal," she said the money was actually collected and disbursed by private committees set up in each city.

She said that she chaired the campaign during its first year only and that she was not aware that any money was collected from individuals with projects pending HUD approval.

Furthermore, she said, "I don't think that anybody who does HUD housing would ever think that by making a donation (to the fair housing campaign) they'd get anything in return."

No Audit or Accounting

She said there has been no audit or accounting of the money spent by the campaign because there is no law requiring such disclosure by the "literally hundreds" of public-private partnerships that exist at the federal, state and local level of government.

She added, however, that it is "probably not a bad idea" for Congress to pass a law requiring the filing of annual disclosure statements.

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