Incomplete audit

November 17, 2003

NEARLY FOUR YEARS after Daniel P. Henson III resigned, federal auditors have issued a blistering report on his stewardship of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. Rules were circumvented, record-keeping ignored. As a result of such mismanagement, two showcase garden apartment complexes ended up costing taxpayers $28.6 million more than anticipated, according to the audit.

But though the HUD inspector general's audit raises some serious issues, it is incomplete at best. It details the failings of Mr. Henson and the Housing Authority he headed; however, it says nothing of the quiet complicity of HUD bureaucrats, who approved the costly change orders and knew it was Mr. Henson's style to play fast and loose with often antiquated rules on the books. Even after HUD reprimanded him, the practice was allowed to persist.

The HUD audit also fails to take into consideration the overall context in which two crime-ridden public housing high-rises were replaced by Pleasant View Gardens and the Terraces. They were among the first projects to be completed anywhere in the nation under HUD's Hope VI program, which placed subsidized tenants next door to regular renters and homeowners.

President Bill Clinton and two HUD secretaries, Henry G. Cisneros and Andrew M. Cuomo, repeatedly used them as backdrops and referred to them as models for revitalization efforts elsewhere. Despite clearly identified problems, Baltimore's Housing Authority enjoyed a favored status in Washington.

That status was illustrated in 1998, when the HUD inspector general's office wanted to investigate Mr. Henson's unusual "can-do" methods. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke got the probe quashed by appealing personally to President Clinton, a friend and ally.

This history does not excuse Mr. Henson's brazen and questionable efforts to cut the red tape he deemed to be too cumbersome. But it underscores how HUD's politically appointed leadership and day-to-day managers were at odds with the inspector general's office in the mid-1990s. At the time, they triumphed over the legalists, who now have their revenge.

Republicans have been in power in Washington for nearly three years, but little seems to have changed at HUD. How else to explain that Mr. Henson, whom the audit wants reprimanded, ended up lecturing to some 300 HUD interns last week? His topic: How to be a successful developer.

Perhaps the inspector general ought to audit how personal and political concerns influence the way HUD conducts its business and makes its decisions. That would make more sense than belatedly criticizing a local project that was completed long ago by managers no longer here.

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