U.S. audit criticizes anti-drug spending

HUD used $1.1 million for New Age program

September 08, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Taxpayer money that was supposed to fight drugs and crime in the nation's public housing instead went to a program that helped low-income tenants determine their personality type and lower stress using aromatherapy, gemstones and meditation, a federal audit found.

The Creative Wellness Program received about $1.1 million from an anti-drug program at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development between 1998 and 2000 to operate at public housing sites in seven cities, including Baltimore.

In a sharply critical report made public this week, the HUD Inspector General said a senior HUD employee misused her position by awarding the contract to a longtime acquaintance without seeking other bids.

Investigators also said there was little evidence that the program, which professed to use a physical assessment of the body's glands to identify 14 personality types -- all named for Greek and Roman gods and goddesses -- had any effect on the substance abuse and crime problems that have long afflicted America's public housing.

"In our opinion, this represents an excessive and ineffective use of public housing drug elimination funds with no measurable benefits," the report said.

HUD officials responded to the findings by shutting down the wellness program and by transferring Gloria J. Cousar, the former deputy assistant secretary for public and assisted housing delivery, to a job where she no longer has authority to award grant money.

"As soon as we learned this program exists, we killed it," said Nancy L. Segerdahl, a HUD spokeswoman who said officials suspended the program in April, soon after they were alerted to the inspector general's investigation.

In addition to Baltimore, the program was used at public housing in six other cities: Washington; Chicago; Fairfax, Va.; Charlotte, N.C.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Albuquerque, N.M.

"This is clearly not what HUD's mission is, and this is not the kind of program we should be administering," Segerdahl said.

Officials also have taken steps to recover about $98,110 that the program's operators improperly collected from HUD or spent on ineligible items. Those items included a $9,500 copier and an $18,586 van purchased by the National Institute for Medical Options, a nonprofit organization based in Herndon, Va.

Reached yesterday, Cousar referred all questions about the program and the audit report to HUD's public affairs office, saying she regretted that she could not talk about it.

Cousar spoke at length about the program's benefits in an October 2000 health article in The Washington Post. She said the program helped people gain more control over their lives and reject drug use and crime.

"People become involved in drugs because they have given up. They think poorly of themselves," Cousar said. The program, she added, "helps empower people to act on healthier lifestyles. If that means getting their weight down and functioning better so that they get a job and not wake up feeling depressed, that will help them keep up with the rent and feel more successful."

This week's inspector general report said Cousar had a clear conflict of interest in promoting the program and that her actions in securing funding for it "went far beyond what a prudent government official should have done."

In her position as a deputy assistant secretary, Cousar had sole authority to approve program grants of up to $1 million. Responding to the audit, HUD officials now require a second approval for any grant of more than $250,000.

According to the report, Cousar said she did not seek other bids for the wellness program because she didn't think anyone else would be willing to work in dangerous public housing facilities.

But the report said Cousar has a long-standing relationship with Michelle E. Lousson, president of the National Institute for Medical Options -- both are ministers affiliated with the Community Center for Wholistic Healing in Herndon, Va., and they have other professional ties reaching back to the early 1990s, the report said.

Lousson did not respond to messages left yesterday at her Herndon offices. In the newspaper article last fall, she dismissed skeptics of her creative wellness program.

"I really think this is worthy and deserving of respect," Lousson said. "We'll be changing a lot of minds."

The wellness program claimed to reduce stress, boost self-esteem and improve overall health among low-income public housing residents by using various alternative therapies, according to fliers and literature that promoted it.

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