WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh has refused a request to meet with the chairman of a House panel investigating abuses at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, underscoring tensions between the two government branches now conducting parallel inquiries into the scandal.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), chairman of the House Government Operations Committee's subcommittee on employment and housing, said he sought the meeting to make sure the panel's continuing hearings do not jeopardize potential criminal prosecutions based on misconduct at the agency.
He said he also wanted to make sure the department had all the evidence available on political favoritism and mismanagement at the agency during the Ronald Reagan Administration.
"They missed an opportunity to establish a dialogue," Lantos said in an interview. "As a result, I don't know what the Justice Department is doing."
A Justice Department spokesman has said the department cannot discuss confidential information being gathered in its investigations in the case. While the probe is ongoing, such a meeting would be inappropriate, the spokesman said.
But another Democrat on the panel, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, charged that the rebuff reflects the department's passive attitude toward HUD disclosures that have focused critical attention on leading Republican business consultants and former officials.
Also, the rift highlighted the contrasting approach of the Justice Department, which has downplayed some HUD disclosures, and new HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, who has declared that he inherited an agency where abuse and mismanagement were rampant under his predecessor, Samuel R. Pierce Jr.
"We're going to let the chips fall where they may," Kemp said Wednesday in testimony before the House Select Committee on Aging. "As we undertake the Herculean task of cleaning the Augean stables, we are moving forward as well."
Lantos, who has received bipartisan praise for the way he has conducted the congressional inquiry, said Kemp has been "very cooperative" in contrast to the posture of the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, the head of a labor union that obtained HUD subsidies for two nonprofit housing projects for the elderly in Boston said former Sen. George Murphy of California did not receive "one red cent" for contacting Pierce and his executive assistant, Deborah Gore Dean, on behalf of the projects.
Murphy, according to Kenneth Lyons, president of the National Assn. of Government Employees, received an annual payment of $35,000 from NAGE for speaking and writing about health insurance and other benefit programs.
While he did see Dean to try and expedite HUD payments for contractors involved in the Boston projects, he never was paid for lobbying and did it as a favor to the organization, Lyons said in a telephone interview.
Murphy, a former actor who was a U.S. senator from 1965 to 1971, is a close friend as well as political associate of former President Reagan. He was said to be on vacation in North Carolina and could not be reached for comment on the report of his HUD contacts, first reported by the New York Times.