Paltry probe of HUD thieves

Sydney H. Schanberg

November 21, 1991|By Sydney H. Schanberg

WHATEVER happened to the special prosecutor for the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

Remember the fanfare? Remember how we were told that the HUD thieves would be brought to account? But here it is, nearly two years after the start of this investigation, and the results are, even by the most charitable of assessments, paltry. Paltry is not a complimentary word, but I think it's a fair word when you're talking about the sum total of one indictment.

And the man indicted was hardly one of the big names who were revealed to have looted HUD of hundreds of millions of dollars during President Reagan's eight years in the White House.

For the record, the lone indictee is Leonard Briscoe, a smoothie who put together shopping malls and the like in Texas and Florida, and who, according to the charges, committed fraud and other felonies in persuading HUD to give him a $2.4 million grant for one of these projects. Two-million-plus seems like a lot of money, but frankly, next to the predations of some of the looters, Briscoe has to be labeled a piker.

Yet there's still no word from the special prosecutor about any action against the major figures in the scandal, whose activities were the sole reason for the creation of the prosecutor's office.

I'm talking about people like Samuel R. Pierce Jr., who presided over HUD during the entire Reagan reign, and his top aides like Deborah Gore Dean who took the Fifth Amendment in testimony before Congress, and about the Republican lobbyists and power brokers who found it so easy to reach into the HUD pie and come out with multimillion-dollar plums that make the Mafia look like a penny-ante enterprise.

Back in 1989, when the scandal began to ooze out, a major audit of HUD done by the agency's own inspector general disclosed that much of the budget that was supposed to be spent on creating housing for the poor had gone into the pockets of country-club cronies of Reagan, George Bush and other GOP lions. Huge consulting fees were paid to silky cats like James Watt, Edward Brooke and the late John Mitchell for making a few phone calls to HUD officials to win project approval for favored developers.

HUD became, literally, the designated award kitty for those who had done the most to put Reagan and Bush into office.

Another big name in the scandal was that of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. He controlled HUD's New York regional office, according to former HUD officials, and pretty much dictated who would get which grants. No surprise, then, that so much of the New York money went to people who had contributed generously to D'Amato campaigns and also to people who hired the senator's brother Armand as their lawyer.

When asked if it was looking at the New York operation, the special prosecutor's office said "no comment." One understands professional ethics and the need for secrecy during ongoing investigations. But I had not asked if they were investigating a particular somebody -- only if they were examining HUD's operation in New York. Let's hope that in this case they're merely being careful, not delinquent.

I readily acknowledge that a prosecutor, or any other government official, has no obligation to function on any timetable but the one driven by the evidence and its availability. The impatience of a reporter, or a horde of reporters, should not be the operative factor.

Yet it is clearly in the realm of fair comment, when a reasonable block of time has passed, to ask aloud if a strong commitment to an investigation exists.

The special prosecutor was named March 2, 1990. He is Arlin Adams, 69, Republican, a retired judge who served for 17 years on the federal bench in Philadelphia. He has an investigative staff of 12 attorneys, three of them part time, and an staff of 17.

Their budget runs about $150,000 a month, according to a spokesman, and that means that they've spent about $3 million so far. That's not a lot when compared to some special-prosecutor budgets, but it is enough for us to start asking questions about where the investigation is going.

The HUD special prosecutor was created only when the Bush administration could no longer contain the mounting disclosures scandal and the resultant demands for an independent

investigation. Bush's then-attorney general, Dick Thornburgh, though a cover-up artist extraordinaire, had no choice but to file an application with the three-judge federal panel that selects independent prosecutors.

We have seen in recent years -- as in Iran-contra and the savings and loan debacle -- how often it happens that serious wrongdoing is eventually buried and barred from exhumation, regardless of the good intentions of certain of the people who are named to investigate. The weight of the executive branch, and sometimes, of Congress, can squeeze the air out of the best of intentions.

In the not-too-distant future, the statute of limitations will run out on some of the acts of pillage at HUD. Let's hope the special prosecutor is receiving enough encouragement and support to get there before time expires.

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