A remark about Italian-Americans that was made during a staff meeting at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was denounced yeserday by Rep. Andrew Maguire (D-N.J.).
HUD officials familiar with the incident said the comment was made casually by a staffer, who, they said, meant it as a joke.
But Maguire said "highly reliable" sources told him the comment was part of a "serious proposa?" to run FBI checks on any Italian-American and any New Jersey person involved in projects for which cities seek funds under HUD's Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) program.
Maguire asked HUD Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris for an immediate investigation, adding in a news reelease that, if the proposal were made, "it smacks of the most blatant, defamatory discrimination imaginable."
Harris, who was in Chicago last night on a mission to promote interest in UDAG grants among Midwestern business executives, denied that such a proposal was ever made or that UDAG intends to run FBI checks on anyone.
However, she said of the remark: "That statement represents the kind of racial and ethnic prejudice I would not expect to find at HUD. If I learn the identity of the person who made it, I will reprimand him."
UDAG is a $400-million-a-year HUD program designed to spur private investment in declining cities. It seeks to provide relatively small amounts of federal and local government funds to stimulate large job-creating investments by private enterprise.
David S. Cordish, who has been the UDAG director for three months, said he was "annoyed that Maguire would make charges without even calling me to check."
Cordisn said he had asked "a lowranking staff person," whom he would not name, last December to look into the possibility of using Dun & Bradstreet credit ratings and FBI checks on firms involved in applications that cities make to HUD.
"Sometime before Christmas we had an all-day meeting with about 18 staff people to discuss about 50 items dealing with the UDAG program," Cordish said.
"The staffer spent a long time explaining Dun & Bradstreet procedures, and said, 'Let's get a subscription to their service.' Then he started talking about FBI checks, which I understand the Economic Development Administration [at the Commerce Department] seeks routinely.
"I thought it sounded complicated, and I cut him off. We had enough to do without that.
"In January Bob [Robert C.] Embry [assistant secretary for community development and Cordish's boss], who was not at the meeting, said someone told him an ethnic remark had been made. I hadn't heard any, but I started checking.
"The staffer who discussed the FBI check told me he had done it. He said that as he was detailing the idea, someone near him asked who would be subject of the checks. He said he mumbled, 'We'll get the Italians from New Jersey.'"