A House subcommittee ended its hearings on the scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development yesterday with a Florida developer acknowledging that he had lied about his planned committee appearance in a desperate effort to settle a multimillion-dollar dispute.
The appearance of Jeffrey H. Auslander, a developer from Boca Raton, enlivened what was to have be an anticlimactic ending to 13 months of hearings by the Government Operations subcommittee on employment and housing. The panel, headed by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), has heard repeated testimony about how a core group of political appointees managed to funnel millions of dollars in HUD's dwindling housing funds to favored developers during the Reagan administration.
Lantos produced four telephone facsimile messages that Auslander acknowledged he had sent to several lawyers. In the messages, Auslander claimed he had struck a deal with the subcommittee in which he would testify and it in return would recommend a Justice Department investigation of questionable dealings at a firm that was supposed to help finance some of his housing projects.
Lantos angrily charged that statement was "a lie," a blatant attempt by Auslander to force resolution of a civil lawsuit over the projects. "This is not 'The People's Court' and I am not Judge Wapner," Lantos said, referring to a popular television show on which minor disputes are settled in a studio trial.
The chairman threatened to halt the hearings, demanding that Auslander acknowledge his statement was "a lie." At one point Lantos told the developer, "We're going to stay here until the cows come home if you don't."
After first hedging, the developer conceded he had lied in hopes of forcing the attorneys to move to settle a dispute that had crippled his business and sent his partner into bankruptcy. "I'm not proud of what I said. I was desperate," Auslander said. "I sit here before you as a ruined man."
Although Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said the admission cast doubts on Auslander's testimony, Lantos and committee staffers later defended it, saying Auslander had corroborated statements by other witnesses about HUD corruption.
Earlier, Leonard E. Briscoe, a Fort Worth, Tex., builder whose firm received several large controversial HUD contracts during the Reagan administration, became the sixth person to decline to testify before the subcommittee.
Briscoe, whose Briscoe Co. was named HUD's "Minority Business of the Year" in 1984, said his lawyer had had insufficient time to assist him. Outside the hearing room, Briscoe denied that he had offered favors to HUD officials to win federal funds.
He and his staff offered reporters a 13-minute videotape showing his firm's low and moderate-income housing projects as "a model of what can be accomplished" in public-private partnerships, and included interviews with happy residents.
Lantos charged that Lance Wilson, a former executive assistant to Samuel R. Pierce Jr., HUD secretary in the Reagan administration, and a key figure in the awarding of HUD funds, had set up a consulting firm with Briscoe four months after he left HUD. The chairman produced copies of checks Wilson had written to himself for $23,500 shortly afterward.
Lantos said he has no plans to call additional witnesses and hopes the subcommittee can vote on its findings "early this fall."