• U.S.

Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick

5 minute read
Ed Magnuson

Whether as a pro quarterback or a political pro, Jack Kemp has always been nimble and quick. Those qualities came in handy last week, as he dealt with the scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has billowed from a candlestick into an inferno. Before celebrating his 54th birthday with 54 cakes from admiring employees, the beleaguered HUD chief wryly conceded, “When I first took the nomination from President Bush, I wanted to make HUD a high-profile agency. I don’t think this is what I had in mind.”

In his trial by fire, the personal stakes are high for the feisty former nine-term New York Congressman who vainly sought the Republican presidential nomination last year. The self-styled “progressive conservative” has long turned the neat trick of attracting right-wing support with his antitax, free- enterprise economic policies while urging his party to reach out to blacks by conceiving compassionate programs. He had hoped to turn HUD into a shining example of how his party could put capitalist tools to work easing the problems of the poor, spurring new development in the inner cities and providing housing for the homeless. But Kemp has found that before he can house anyone, he must first clean house at HUD.

Last week, as in all recent weeks, housecleaning swamped the rest of his agenda. The Secretary did win a brief respite from his headaches by traveling to Detroit, where he achieved a rare feat for a Republican leader: he received three standing ovations from the N.A.A.C.P.’s annual convention. Kemp admitted candidly that the G.O.P. was “nowhere to be found” in the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s and vowed that his party will change. He called on South Africa to “let our people go.” But such pleasantries inevitably faded as he addressed the mess at HUD, earnestly vowing that he would “work for the people in need, not those motivated by greed” and would not allow HUD’s troubles to become “an excuse to close down programs for poor folks.”

Kemp spent much of the rest of the week back among his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, fielding tough questions from two House subcommittees probing the scandal. For the first time, he put a price tag on the loss to taxpayers from the fraud and mismanagement under former HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce: $2 billion. At least half of that appears to have been siphoned from a six-year- old program in which the Federal Housing Administration, an arm of HUD, shares the insurance of housing projects with private companies.

Kemp tried to avoid direct criticism of his predecessor, whom he called a decent and honorable man, but nonetheless noted that HUD is still dealing with more than 1,900 recommendations from the department’s inspector general for tightening lax procedures, suggestions that had sat on Pierce’s desk without action.

Pierce’s fraying reputation suffered a more serious blow last week, when one of his former top aides implicated him directly in the scandal. Though Pierce had told a House subcommittee last May that he had never been personally involved in HUD program grants, Shirley McVay Wiseman told the panel that her boss had directly ordered her to approve $16 million in federal subsidies for a housing project in Durham, N.C., proposed by Pierce’s former law partner. She refused, she said, so Pierce signed the papers.

While Kemp treated Pierce gently, he scoffed at the claims of some prominent Republicans that the huge fees they received from developers for their influence in obtaining HUD contracts had not hurt taxpayers. The department, he testified, had given developers “a reason to hire a consultant” and then provided “the money to pay the consultant’s fees.” Moreover, he said, private brokers who handled house sales for HUD and then failed to turn the money over to the Government were not “Robin Hood-type heroes . . . robbing the rich. They are stealing from the taxpayer and depriving low- and moderate- income people of the opportunity to realize the American dream of home ownership.” He noted that HUD had even let some developers turn housing projects for retirees into havens for the wealthy. He cited a Florida project in which two-bedroom apartments rented for $2,100 a month.

After releasing a summary of steps he has taken to straighten out HUD, Kemp announced he would not permit his department to deal with 54 former senior officials whom Pierce had exempted from the Ethics in Government Act. The waivers permitted the officials to take private jobs in which they could promptly profit from their HUD experience. One had made $1.3 million in two years as a consultant to developers seeking HUD contracts.

A top Kemp aide insists that the energetic Secretary is “holding up great” under the double strain of the cleanup while seeking to fulfill his own vision of what his department should accomplish. But with a third congressional inquiry of HUD about to begin, Kemp’s visions are likely to remain on hold. More Republican political embarrassment also seems inevitable. One of the House subcommittees said it intends to question Carla Hills, now the U.S. Trade Representative and a former Secretary of HUD, about her efforts to help a mortgage company and a developer get HUD contracts.

For an ambitious politician, a crisis can also be an opportunity. Cast in the sympathetic role of a reformer, Kemp could ride the current wave of unsolicited attention into a bright political future. Though he has appointed , a deputy to ride herd on the reform effort, it is Kemp who will be judged by the results. And an image of Mr. Clean — or even better, Mr. Cleanup — would look fine in 1996, if nimble Jack can pull it off.

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