Exasperated by repeated controversies over local housing programs, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski asked yesterday for a federal investigation of a troubled Baltimore County apartment complex and of a new contracting policy at the city's housing agency.
In calling for the inquiry by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ms. Mikulski said federal housing officials appear to be "asleep at the switch" in Maryland.
"Every tax dollar must count, and every dollar must be accounted for," she said at a news conference at the World Trade Center in downtown Baltimore. "There is no room for waste, there is no room for fraud, and there is no room for cronyism if we are to have public confidence in the expenditure of public funds to help the poor."
Ms. Mikulski is seeking an inquiry into what happened at the rundown Riverdale Village Apartments in Essex-Middle River, where the owner is collecting federal rent subsidies after defaulting on a government-backed mortgage.
At the same time, Ms. Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat, is asking for a review to determine if there are adequate safeguards at the Baltimore Housing Authority, which acted on a federal change to lift its limit for awarding contracts without public notice was lifted recently from $25,000 to $100,000.
Her call for an independent HUD review and greater vigilance comes after a year of housing controversies in the Baltimore region.
Baltimore County officials welcomed her move. But Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke shrugged off her criticism of the more liberal limit on nonpublic bids as politically motivated.
"It seems to be more about the senator's politics than HUD's policy," Mr. Schmoke said.
The city's Housing Authority was acting on a national policy change when it lifted its threshold for seeking informal bids without public advertising from $25,000 to $100,000, Mr. Schmoke said. The bidding limit was raised for 25 federal agencies in April.
"I'm sure they [the federal government] have confidence in our ability to use this process wisely," Mr. Schmoke said.
Ms. Mikulski said public bidding is an important safeguard and noted that a federal audit faulted the agency a year ago for "very weak management controls." Thirteen people have been convicted of bribery in a federal corruption investigation, including six who were involved in the agency's troubled $25.6 million no-bid repair program.
The review she is seeking would include the city Housing Authority and the Maryland HUD office.
Ms. Mikulski wants a better explanation of the contract policy and of why HUD officials in Maryland "took no action for nearly four years to get to the bottom of the problem" at Riverdale Village.
HUD is now foreclosing on a $5.4 million government-backed mortgage covering nearly half of the 1,200-unit complex.
Yesterday, the owner, Richard Schlesinger, said he agrees with the senator's view that HUD did not do enough to salvage the group of mostly boarded-up buildings on Eastern Boulevard.
"Essentially, they did nothing," Mr. Schlesinger said in a phone interview from his office in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was especially critical of HUD's refusal in 1992 to lend him $44.7 million for renovations, saying, "They could have reduced the density and gone forward, but they didn't."
However, officials at the Maryland HUD office disagreed, saying they protected taxpayers by not lending more on a property that was over-mortgaged and for which there was little demand.
"We think we're doing the right thing," said Ina Singer, director of multifamily housing for the local HUD office.
Baltimore County Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina said Ms. Mikulski's request for an investigation of Riverdale Village is a "wake-up call" to HUD.
"A lot of unscrupulous owners have allowed these properties to slide way down, at Riverdale and elsewhere around the country," he said. "These places have had a major negative impact on communities, mine included. And people get rich on it."