By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson twice last week declined to directly answer senators' questions about allegations that he and his agency sought to punish a housing authority for refusing to help one of Jackson's friends.
Senators were focused on a January 2007 e-mail exchange, first reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday, in which two of Jackson's assistant secretaries discussed how they could make the Philadelphia Housing Authority director's life "less happy" by taking away the authority's federal funds.
In a recent lawsuit against the Department of Housing and Urban Development, authority director Carl R. Greene accused the agency of moving to strip his office of about $50 million based on exaggerated claims that the authority was not providing enough accessible housing. He asserts that it was retaliation for rebuffing Jackson's earlier demands that Greene give a $2 million vacant authority property to developer Kenny Gamble, a friend of Jackson's.
Jackson, when asked about retaliation accusations by Senate banking committee members Wednesday, said he could not discuss the matter because it is the subject of a lawsuit against his agency. He said a gag order prevented him from commenting.
But when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he had learned that the judge's gag order did not prohibit Jackson from answering senators' questions, Jackson acknowledged Thursday at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that he had learned he could discuss the matter. Reading from a written statement, however, Jackson said he did not have any firsthand information about the e-mails and learned of them the day before they were published. He later sidestepped several questions about any personal role he played in the dispute with the Philadelphia agency.
"Am I concerned? Yes," Jackson told Specter. "But I don't know all the intricacies of what occurred. . . . I'm making every effort to get to the bottom of it."
In the e-mails, Orlando J. Cabrera, then-assistant secretary for public housing, asks Kim Kendrick, assistant secretary for accessible housing, to suggest ways he can help "make life less happy" for Greene.
Kendrick responds: "Take away all of his Federal dollars? :-D "
Cabrera writes back: "Let me look into that possibility."
At the hearing Thursday, Jackson said in his written statement that he surmised that the e-mails reflected his staff's frustration with the Philadelphia authority because of Greene's reluctance to cooperate with HUD in a dispute over disabled-accessible housing.
Jackson declined to answer several questions about any role he may have played in that dispute with the authority, and about his 2006 request that the authority provide to a friend the vacant land in a redevelopment of the Martin Luther King housing project. In response to Specter's questions, Jackson confirmed that he called then-Mayor John F. Street in late 2006 about the need to complete the King project, which included that property, but Jackson declined to answer detailed questions about whether he discussed Gamble getting the vacant parcel.
"Senator, I've told you the truth," Jackson said.
In an interview last week, Cabrera said the e-mail does reflect frustration Kendrick had expressed about Philadelphia trying to block her staff members from inspecting its housing. He said the discussion had nothing to do with giving land to Gamble.
"Yes, I was trying to use some leverage," he said. "I was trying to help a colleague get the doors opened to her inspectors."
Cabrera said the e-mails were glib, but he does not regret them.
"It was an effort to help a colleague, " Cabrera said. "It was not a cabal."