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New focus on Andrew Cuomo years at HUD

The New York Times has a long story on Andrew Cuomo’s years as head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

No mention of an old Newsday story about allegations that Cuomo used the agency as a political steppingstone. No link, so here’s the story from Oct. 12, 1999:


BYLINE: By William Murphy. STAFF WRITER 


LENGTH: 710 words

U.S. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo created a program that hired hundreds of highly paid workers under questionable methods and used them to dole out "political" information, according to a scathing internal audit.

The department of Housing and Urban Development strongly protested the findings on Cuomo's Community Builders program, which came in an audit prepared by the agency's inspector general.

But in response, the auditors stuck with their charge that the program was political in nature and added that it was not "a stretch" for opponents to charge it is a form of political patronage.

"In our view, Community Builders are performing public relations functions," the final report said. "We are also not inclined to remove our conclusion that the primary information the Community Builders disseminated was political." Cuomo, a close political ally of Vice President Al Gore and a potential candidate for governor, created the program in 1997. The hiring, the audit said, was unusually controlled by the housing secretary's office, some 460 people were put on the federal payroll, often lacking experience in housing.

They were to work to "empower America's people and local governments," serving as liaisons to communities across the nation.

From New York, newly hired employees included Leland Jones, former press secretary to Mayor David Dinkins and a top aide in Ruth Messinger's mayoral campaign; Hulbert James, Dinkins' liaison to the black community; and Toni Schmiegelow, who headed the City Volunteer Corps in the Dinkins administration.

A spokesman for HUD, David Egner, responded that the inspector general's report "is filled with inaccuracies and unsubstantiated attacks that have no basis in fact." There had been rumblings for months about the political nature of the program, but they did not come to the surface until the audit, dated Sept. 30, was mentioned in a telefax newsletter put out by City Limits, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Bill de Blasio, who is Cuomo's representative for the New York/New Jersey area, worked on the 1996 Clinton-Gore effort in New York State, and worked briefly for City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) while Vallone was preparing last year's run for governor.

The audit said 39 of the 69 Community Builders who were interviewed said they spend 50 percent of their time on public relations activities.

It also said that while the Community Builders' employees were to work as liaisons to the community, other HUD employees would be retrained as public trust officers and would enforce regulations.

Although the two job titles were billed as "co-equals," the Community Builders were better paid, leading to resentment by longtime HUD employees toward the newcomers, the audit said.

While 40 percent of Community Builders were ranked GS-15, making between $ 74,7773 and $ 97,201 a year, only 6 percent of Public Trust Officers were in that highest pay bracket, the report said.

The audit said the Community Builders were hired using a method that skirted traditional civil service rules, and that military veterans were not given a preference as required by law. HUD disputed both accusations.

"The staff stated they assumed anyone serving in the armed services would know to include their veteran status when applying for a federal job," the audit said.

One Community Builder employee filed a complaint with the inspector general's hotline that he was being pressured to support a voter registration drive. He said that if he was expected to do political work, "they should have indicated as much." The audit also said that the Community Builders often went beyond their community outreach and "injected themselves into programmatic matters," raising questions that they harmed housing programs in some cities. HUD disagreed.

"In our opinion, HUD should discontinue the Community Builder position. It cannot afford the Community Builder concept," the audit concluded.

It found the impact of Community Builders difficult to measure. One outcome, the audit said, is the dramatic increase in the number of people at HUD who are "not part of a specific program, engaged in customer relations, and owing their jobs to the Department's political management."




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