Henson's fast-track under attack

September 23, 1994

When Daniel P. Henson III, a successful private developer, was brought in to rescue Baltimore's troubled housing bureaucracy in March, 1993, one of the first things he did was to declare an emergency. That way he could award repair contracts without time-consuming competitive bidding and get vacant and vandalized public housing units occupied in a fast-track fashion.

Mr. Henson was the first to acknowledge that his action enabled him to circumvent cumbersome federal rules and would earn him subsequent criticism from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. But he had to do what needed to be done, since Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had tolerated the previous commissioner's do-nothing approach so long that Baltimore's once-vaunted public housing program was run into the ground.

The federal verdict has now come in. An auditor's report charges that a $25 million no-bid repair program spent more than twice the going rate to fix public housing units, paid contractors for work that was never done and gave millions to firms run by relatives of managers.

Mayor Schmoke and Mr. Henson contend the audit is a "cheap shot" and was sloppily done. They may have a point. Certainly past HUD audits have often been flawed.

What is different here, though, is that a bureaucracy headed by Henry G. Cisneros, a friend of Mr. Schmoke, has come down so hard on the city. Also different from past audits is that a separate grand jury investigation is trying to determine whether the irregularities in the Housing Authority are prosecutable offenses.

Indeed, Mr. Cisneros told Mayor Schmoke during a phone call yesterday that one of his staff's biggest worries was that favoritism may have been shown in the awarding of non-bid contracts.

Those familiar with past HUD audits know that they are always critical and often filled with inaccuracies. Yet the findings of this audit are so serious the Schmoke administration should spare no effort in making sure the pall cast on the city is removed quickly.

Under Mr. Cisneros, HUD has often treated Baltimore as a testing ground for new ideas. It has given the city a go-ahead to demolish a number of outdated and troubled high-rise towers, which are to be replaced with garden apartments. It has financed other innovative ideas.

It is only natural for Mayor Schmoke and Mr. Henson to disagree with some of the HUD findings. Yet they ought to concentrate their efforts now on assuring Mr. Cisneros that Baltimore is running a clean operation and that any irregularities uncovered will not be tolerated or repeated.


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