Schmoke stands behind Henson, despite HUD audit

September 23, 1994|By Eric Siegel and JoAnna Daemmrich | Eric Siegel and JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writers

Despite a scathing federal audit of the Baltimore Housing Authority, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday stood firmly by his hand-picked executive director and said he didn't believe the report would hurt the city's efforts to attract federal funds.

But other politicians from the halls of Congress to City Hall called the abuses cited in the audit embarrassing and outrageous. Many did not share the mayor's optimism, worrying that federal as well as state aid may be at risk.

At his weekly news briefing, Mr. Schmoke admitted there were problems in the authority's administration of a $25 million no-bid repair program. But he said Executive Director Daniel P. Henson III did the right thing in launching the emergency program to rebuild long-deteriorated housing for the poor.

"I'm not saying that there may not have been some mistakes made," Mr. Schmoke said. "But what Commissioner Henson is trying to do in trying to improve the quality of life for poor people is admirable."

Mr. Schmoke interrupted his briefing to take an unusual unsolicited call from Henry G. Cisneros, the nation's housing czar. He returned to report that Mr. Cisneros, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, told him the audit would not affect the city's "working relationship" with HUD.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat, worried that the audit could "prejudice" future federal grant applications. "It makes it very difficult for many of us who fight for federal dollars to be able to be successful when things like this occur," he said.

The Sun reported yesterday that HUD auditors had found that the no-bid repair program -- which is under investigation by a federal grand jury -- spent more than twice the going rate to fix apartments, paid contractors for work that was never done, and awarded millions of dollars to companies run by relatives of managers.

The 45-page draft report cited abuses in almost every area of the authority's operation. It said authority managers purchased Chevy Blazers for their personal use and paid for appliances, windows and doors that were never installed.

It also found that the authority knowingly exposed families to excessive levels of lead paint and dust.

Mr. Henson on Wednesday dismissed the audit, calling it a "cheap shot" and "sloppily done." But Mr. Cisneros called the findings "serious." The final audit is due today.

Both of Maryland's U.S. senators said yesterday that they were distressed by the findings.

"There's no tolerance for the misuse of federal funds," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. He said he hoped the audit would not hurt the city's pending application to be among six cities selected by HUD as a federal empowerment zone, a designation worth $100 million in aid. "The application is not a Housing Authority proposal," he said.

Added Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski: "I believe you cannot have mismanagement and you cannot have illegal activity."

State Sen. John A. Pica Jr., chairman of the city's Senate delegation, said the audit "certainly doesn't help" the city's efforts to get more state aid. "It lends credence to the belief by some individuals that the city doesn't spend its money wisely."

"People are just shaking their heads today," he added.

The audit's findings already appeared to be a potentially hot issue in next year's citywide elections.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who plans to challenge Mr. Schmoke's bid for a third term, said she was outraged by the findings and called on Mr. Henson to step aside.

"The mayor should require that the housing commissioner take at least a leave from administration of the Housing Authority until these allegations are cleared up. If they are true, he should

resign," she said. "This level of negligence with regards to children and this level of corruption with regard to public money is unprecedented in Baltimore City."

An annoyed Council Vice President Vera P. Hall, the mayor's floor leader, reacted sharply to Ms. Clarke's call for the housing commissioner's removal. "I'm getting sick of people grandstanding."

To many city leaders, the audit's most damaging finding was that the authority jeopardized the safety of children by "not providing adequate protection from lead poisoning," which can cause blindness, paralysis, brain damage and even death.

"The issue of lead paint is greater for me than the issue of competitive bidding," said 2nd District Councilman Carl Stokes. "To know for six months that children were in homes with lead paint, if that is true, that's absolutely the worst piece."

Despite the furor over the audit's findings on lead paint, Baltimore health and housing officials reacted in some confusion yesterday and could not determine by the end of the day whether all the parents had been notified of the problem or the extent to which the city had attempted to correct it.

Elias Dorsey, the deputy health commissioner, could not say whether children living in units identified in the audit had been tested for lead poisoning.

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