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December 8, 1996
Gorton promises hearings on what HUD funds bought
The chairmen of two congressional subcommittees that control spending on Native American housing programs have promised hearings and an investigation into the widespread abuses detailed in The Seattle Times last week.
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., said he will hold hearings to draft new rules to better ensure that money for Native American housing goes to "the most needy" and not to "tribes that don't need it."
Gorton chairs a subcommittee that oversees spending for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Native American housing and education.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., has asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate the allegations raised about the Native American housing program, which is run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The GAO is a nonpartisan congressional agency that audits federal programs.
Lewis who chairs a committee that controls HUD's budget - also called for a "series of meetings" with Native American leaders and government officials to discuss the diversion of money intended for the poor described in The Times stories.
The five-part series documented cases around the country in which tribal leaders took advantage of relaxed rules and oversight at HUD to benefit themselves, their relatives and their friends at the expense of needier Native Americans. The series also described the desperate housing needs on reservations, where some people live in dilapidated cars and teetering trailers.
Before the series ran, outgoing HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros learned about some of the findings and asked for an investigation by HUD's inspector general.
Lewis told Cisneros in a letter Friday that HUD "bears ultimate responsibility" for the abuses.
"It is absolutely appalling that some of those with direct control of HUD Indian housing dollars are living in the lap of luxury while the poorest of the poor live in squalor with no electricity or running water," Lewis wrote. "These allegations are simply too serious to ignore."
The man thought to be next in line for Cisneros' job, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, said the articles indicate a need for "more oversight and a greater degree of accountability."
However, he said he felt awkward commenting on an agency he doesn't work for.
HUD says it knew of abuses
Dominic Nessi, the HUD official in charge of the agency's Native American programs, said the series documented problems that his staff already knew about.
"I don't think you told us anything we didn't know," he said in an interview Friday. "We just have a very basic difference of opinion on what your series means."
Nessi said the problems are limited to a few of the nation's roughly 200 Native American housing authorities, most of which are run well.
His agency is moving ahead with a program, mandated by a new law, that will give Native American housing officials more leeway in spending HUD money, he said. He said the law will produce more housing.
Jacqueline Johnson, the president of the National American Indian Housing Council, said The Times stories should have focused more on people doing things right.
"So many good tribal leaders out there are trying to do so much," said Johnson, a housing director in Juneau, Alaska. "I'm worried that the perception of Indian leaders has been basically sabotaged."
Auditing changes proposed
Jerry Leslie, administrator of HUD's Native American programs in the Pacific Northwest, said the series left the impression that "HUD staff are dishonest, inept and bureaucratically insensitive. That's not true."
"In a lot of cases we are running it properly," said Leslie, a member of the Oklahoma Chickasaw Tribe who grew up in the Yakima area.
Leslie said one mistake HUD made as it deregulated the Native American housing program in recent years, cutting back on rules and oversight, was not making it clear to tribal leaders that they had to pay more attention to the operations of their housing authorities.
"When we backed off and left a vacuum there, nobody told the tribe, `You are supposed to fill this in,' " he said.
In cases where individuals take advantage of housing programs, Leslie said, HUD must improve its auditing program to detect problems earlier. He suggested, as he has in the past, that HUD toughen its auditing standards and that the federal government hire the auditors who examine tribal housing authority books.
At present, tribes hire auditors to do their annual reviews. The auditors then submit the report to HUD. In case after case examined by The Times during the past six months, private auditors hired by the tribes missed or ignored major problems.
Some Native American activists said HUD should pay more attention to the housing-authority problems and were pleased that the stories exposed problems at HUD and on some reservations.
"It throws it right out there. Now people can't ignore it," said Lela Kaskella, 40, governor of the Nambe Tribe in New Mexico.
Kaskella joined other local tribal leaders in asking the HUD inspector general to investigate the Northern Pueblo Housing Authority, where The Times found that lucrative benefits had been granted to the chairman and his friends.
"I think it's very good that it's been brought out," she said. "I want it cleaned up."
"If they are corrupt and misapplying funds, we've got to hold them accountable," said Bill Lawrence, the editor of a weekly newspaper, the Native American Press/Ojibwe News, that circulates among tribal members in Minnesota and surrounding states.
Lawrence, 57, has written numerous articles about tribal corruption but said it is difficult to get information because tribes are not required to obey the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The newspaper editor, who is a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, said The Times series will help Native American journalists and activists get better access to records.
"I see a new movement in court and new awareness in Congress," he said. "I think the series will help bring this to light."
Fear of losing HUD funding
Some feared the stories will result in a loss of funding at a time it is critically needed, rather than finding a way to address the problems.
Leslie said that when the Northwest Indian Housing Association met Wednesday, the top concern was that they were going to lose resources.
A recent report done by consultants for HUD said Native American housing is one of the nation's greatest housing problems, with more than 100,000 people in need of safe, decent homes. Funding for new housing remains a major problem.
A law passed in the waning minutes of the last Congress recast HUD's Native American housing program into a block-grant system that has fewer rules.
Tribes will get a set amount of money to spend on housing as they see fit, although they must submit a plan to HUD. Congressional staffers said they expect the hurriedly conceived bill to be rewritten next year so that controls over spending are tightened. But another question is how much money Congress will appropriate for future block grants.
The budget for Native American housing has not been decided by the Clinton administration, but preliminary estimates show a funding level slightly less than the $471 million appropriated last year.
Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., who sponsored the bill that changed the Native American housing program to a block-grant system, said in a statement Thursday that he applauded Cisneros' request for an investigation and that he thinks the new law will help the program.
Lazio said the key to his bill is a provision requiring tribes to release to the public copies of their housing plans and the annual reviews of those plans.
"No attempt at rooting out corruption or punishing mismanagement can be successful as long as information is hidden from the public," he said.
Lazio's bill, however, does not require tribes to release other documents that would better show how housing authorities are operating.
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