For six months Congress has looked into allegations of multibillion dollar scandals, waste, mismanagement and influence-peddling at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the one person who might help Congress sort out the facts and shake out the truth, Samuel R. Pierce Jr., former secretary of HUD, testified once before a subcommittee and has since stonewalled the investigation by twice refusing to answer questions. His silence left little choice. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have requested the appointment of a special counsel to take over the investigation.
An independent counsel could pursue the inquiry into the activities of Pierce, some of his top aides and a favored few who profited handsomely from some operations at HUD. But that can happen only if Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh overcomes his objections to the request as an act of "partisan" politics and appoints counsel quickly. Time is running out.
Thornburgh is wrong about the request and his reaction illustrates perfectly the reason that special counsels are essential in such cases. There is nothing partisan about finally getting to the bottom of allegations of political favoritism, pay-offs and fraud that may have cost taxpayers more than $4 billion.
The need for haste lies in the law that set up the procedure for appointing independent counsel. The law provides that a special counsel has only one year in which to investigate a former Cabinet member after he or she leaves office. In Pierce's case, the deadline is Jan. 20.
Pierce, appointed by former President Ronald Reagan, headed the federal housing department for eight years. During his tenure, federal housing funds were cut substantially; poor people in need of housing lost out. At the same time, well-connected Republicans siphoned off millions of dollars in consulting fees for arranging deals for certain developers. That money would have been better spent on rehabilitating housing as the taxpayers intended.
There were other problems at HUD. Private mortgage brokers stole millions from the sale of foreclosed properties. In the rush to privatization as a way to cut costs, HUD cut too deeply into the ranks of government auditors, and the stealing was easy. The Federal Housing Administration, the government's largest real estate mortgage program, ran up billions of dollars in deficits.
Is Pierce to blame for everything that went wrong at HUD? Absent his full and complete testimony, people may never know what exactly went wrong or how to prevent its happening again. A special counsel could clear up the mysteries.