Philadelphia Story

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

NO FEWER than four authorities are investigating Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson for his alleged role in helping award lucrative contracts to friends at housing agencies in New Orleans and the Virgin Islands. Now come serious allegations from the head of the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) that Mr. Jackson is retaliating against his agency because the Philadelphia official resisted arm-twisting aimed at getting him to honor a land deal for a friend of the secretary. This is in keeping with an alleged pattern of behavior by Mr. Jackson that we find very troubling.

At issue is a $2 million parcel of land that Carl R. Greene, the PHA's executive director, says in an affidavit Mr. Jackson demanded go to Kenny Gamble, a noted former songwriter and now a developer of low-income housing who socialized with the HUD secretary. Mr. Greene said he refused because Mr. Gamble's company was in default on a project. The sworn document alleges that Mr. Jackson phoned then-Mayor John F. Street to get him to direct Mr. Greene to hand over the property to Mr. Gamble. Mr. Greene again refused. In the affidavit, he said HUD retaliated against the PHA by threatening to withhold federal funds. The agency vigorously denied this allegation in court papers filed in Philadelphia on Feb. 15. Settling this fight will be a task for the courts.

It could all be a coincidence of timing. After all, there is a question as to whether Philadelphia was holding up its end of a federal housing plan, particularly housing for people with disabilities. But the behavior of Mr. Jackson alleged by Mr. Greene is in keeping with other instances already being investigated by a federal grand jury, the FBI, the Justice Department and HUD's own inspector general.

The probes began after an April 2006 speech in Dallas in which Mr. Jackson said he had fired a contractor who had criticized President Bush. While the HUD inspector general's office found no undue influence, other investigators are looking into whether Mr. Jackson lied to Congress when he said he didn't "touch contracts." They are particularly interested in how friends of Mr. Jackson got lucrative deals with the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the Virgin Islands Housing Authority. And the National Journal reported this month that Mr. Jackson's wife has ties to two companies that did business with the New Orleans authority.

Mr. Jackson led the housing authorities in St. Louis, Dallas and here in the District. He came to HUD in June 2001 as deputy secretary. In March 2004, his longtime friend George W. Bush tapped him for the department's top spot. While Mr. Jackson's alleged conduct has raised eyebrows, launched investigations and gives us pause, the president stands by him. Is that what friends are for?

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