By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006
An inspector general's report charges that top U.S. housing official Alphonso Jackson urged staff members to favor friends of President Bush when awarding Department of Housing and Urban Development contracts. But investigators so far have found no direct proof that Jackson's staff obeyed.
His chief of staff told investigators that Jackson, the HUD secretary, "personally intervened with contractors whom he did not like . . . these contractors had Democratic political affiliations," says the report, a copy of which was made available to The Washington Post.
The investigation "did not disclose any pattern or practice of issuing contracts based on political affiliation . . . however, there were some limited instances where political affiliation may have been a factor in contract issues involving Jackson," the report says.
Awarding contracts on the basis of party affiliation violates federal law.
The 340-page report by the Criminal Investigations Division of HUD's Office of Inspector General has been released to Jackson for a response and given to members of Congress who requested it. A spokesman for the office declined to say whether the report would be released publicly.
Calls for an inquiry came after Jackson, Bush's onetime neighbor in Dallas and former housing authority chief in that city, told attendees at a public forum in Dallas on April 28 that he had killed a contract award to a firm after its chief told Jackson he disliked Bush. Jackson later took back his remarks and told investigators from the inspector general's office that he had "lied, and I regret having done that."
The investigation found "no evidence that a contract was canceled, rescinded, terminated or not issued as a result of the encounter between Secretary Jackson and the contractor," the report says.
Jackson said the report cleared him of wrongdoing. "As I stated previously, during my tenure, no contract has been cancelled, rescinded, terminated, awarded or not awarded due to the personal or political benefits of the recipient," he said in a statement released yesterday.
"I sincerely regret my April 28 remarks that led to this investigation."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who called for Jackson's resignation after the April incident, disagreed.
"The President should not tolerate this type of activity by a member of his Cabinet," Lautenberg said in a statement yesterday. "Given the allegations made by very credible witnesses in the Inspector General's report, the Department of Justice needs to get involved."
According to two senior HUD officials, at a staff meeting this year "Jackson had advised . . . that when considering discretionary contracts, they should be considering supporters of the president," the report says.
"I don't recall doing that. They might have misconstrued it," the report quoted Jackson as saying.
Jackson, who reports directly to the White House, "indicated that he did have a bias, in that he wasn't likely to assist someone who would 'castigate' him or the president, although he would not interfere with a contract on that basis," the report reads.
The report describes investigators' research into the political contributions of 29 companies that received HUD contracts. The sample found that officers and key staff members at the 29 winning companies "contributed $101,931 to Republican candidates and $45,320 to Democratic candidates."
Investigators also describe Jackson's personal involvement with contracts and contractors. Jackson "would meet with individuals who were either contractors or who wanted to obtain contracts at HUD," the report said. A former HUD lawyer was quoted as saying "we warned him against it."
The report contains a lengthy description of delays in releasing a contract to Massachusetts-based Abt Associates, after Jackson objected. Though the award had already been granted and publicized, Jackson's dislike of the firm -- which his chief of staff said was politically motivated -- put the release in limbo for weeks while staffers scrambled to satisfy him and allay outside concerns over the delays.
Jackson told investigators his dislike was based on the quality of the firm's work, "an assertion rendered problematic by other testimony and evidence," the report says, including Abt's high marks in the agency's own evaluation process.
The report says the HUD Office of Inspector General plans to evaluate whether "a more comprehensive audit of HUD contracting activities is feasible and warranted." A spokesman for the office declined to say when that decision would be made.