White House counsel Fred F. Fielding said yesterday that he will examine whether senior federal housing officials violated conflict-of-interest rules last year by accepting expenses on two dozen trips from groups of realtors, builders and city and county officials.
Fielding said he also will look into travel by Emanuel S. Savas, an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who charged the government for 20 trips to New York during which he spent weekends with his family in Tenafly, N.J., after conducting official business.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that industry and civic associations have paid for air fare, hotel bills and meals for senior HUD officials on trips to such places as Italy, Puerto Rico, Santa Barbara, Calif., Orlando, Fla., Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Martha's Vineyard.
HUD employes are prohibited from accepting expenses from cities, counties and specific building and real estate companies, which receive grants and subsidies from HUD and are subject to numerous department decisions.
But Undersecretary Donald I. Hovde has urged senior employes to accept free trips from trade associations, even if their members are regulated by, or do business with, HUD.
Some of these trade groups, such as the National Association of Home Builders, also receive money under HUD contracts.
During the Carter administration, HUD policy also was that "donations . . . may be accepted" from trade associations.
But Hovde went one step further in a memo last May, telling senior officials that such expenses should be "not only accepted but encouraged." He said HUD would consider an "organization's willingness to reimburse expenses" in deciding whether to accept its speaking invitations.
Hovde said this week that because the department's total travel budget has been cut it is "perfectly legitimate" for him and other senior officials to accept such expenses.
But Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), chairman of a House subcommittee on housing, said yesterday that Hovde had made "an error in judgment."
"I think he honestly doesn't see the potential for mischief," Gonzalez said.
"If a HUD official accepts an invitation because it's related to the business of the department, it should be paid for by the department," he said.
Gonzalez added that extensive travel by top HUD officials "is contradictory to what they're preaching. Here they are foisting rent increases on the poorest of the poor, and then this extravaganza," which he characterized as "junkets."
Some industry groups said they are taking their cue from HUD.
"The word we're getting is that there is no HUD money for HUD players to attend conferences, so we're picking up their expenses for them," said Midge Monello, convention manager for the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. "We try to help them with their air fare and hotel rooms."
Savas, a chief advocate of reducing federal aid to the cities, billed the government for $14,000 in travel last year, including five trips to Europe.
Savas said these were legitimate business trips and speaking engagements, and that he saved on hotel costs in New York by spending weekends at his New Jersey home.
One official in Savas' research division said the travel cutbacks have fallen mainly on middle-level program supervisors, who are restricted to few trips to check on the performance of HUD contractors