When Alphonso Jackson announced today that he would be stepping down as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), he joined a growing list of disgraced or, at the very least, incompetent former secretaries of that agency produced by Republican presidents. Jackson is currently facing investigations by the HUD inspector general, a federal grand jury, and the Justice Department’s public integrity section for a host of alleged corrupt practices. The only thing surprising about Jackson’s departure, or the scandals that precipitated it, is that it didn’t come sooner.
Republicans have never liked HUD very much. GOP presidents tend to turn it into a political backwater, a neglected place where they repay campaign favors rather than orchestrate major policy initiatives. As a result, the agency has been the source of a considerable number of GOP scandals. Jackson’s announcement brought back memories of Samuel Pierce, Ronald Reagan’s longtime HUD secretary who was plagued by allegations that many of his close associates had engaged in cronyism, mismanagement, and in some cases, outright theft at the agency, all of which occurred as Reagan dismantled the nation’s low-income housing infrastructure. At least six major Reagan administration officials ended up convicted of crimes stemming from HUD corruption. Pierce was never convicted of anything, but the rot in his agency was so deep that even the former EPA secretary James Watt got convicted in the mess, as did Pierce’s former assistant Deborah Gore Dean (who recently remade herself into a Georgetown antique shop owner).
Modern GOP presidents have relegated the HUD secretary to an affirmative-action posting, a spot where Republicans like to demonstrate their alleged commitment to diversity in the cabinet, while giving those people authority for all the programs Republicans don’t care about, or would like, ideally, to get rid of. Indeed, back in the early years of the Reagan administration, Pierce, the only black member of Reagan’s cabinet, once famously came to the White House for a reception at which Reagan greeted him by saying, “How are you Mr. Mayor? I’m glad to meet you. How are things in your city?”
The current president has used HUD in a similar fashion, first tapping Florida Senator Mel Martinez for the job. Cuban-born Martinez proved to be one of the least memorable HUD secretaries ever. As the administration’s highest-ranking Spanish speaker, Martinez was frequently dispatched to Latin America to attend official state funerals or to observe the wreckage of natural disasters. (He was the official Bush administration rep at the funeral of Cuban salsa star Celia Cruz.) Housing policy seemed secondary to his main job of trying to drum up Republican support among the growing population of Latino voters. Not only did Martinez help the RNC create ads for Univision, the Spanish-language media company, but he spent a tremendous amount of time in 2002 campaigning for congressional candidates in the midterm elections. In 2002, for instance, Martinez headlined a $250-a-person fundraiser for Colorado Senator Wayne Allard, to which Allard invited 188 HUD employees, in violation of federal law. (Members of Congress aren’t allowed to lean on federal employees for campaign contributions.)
Martinez made an art out of announcing federal HUD grant awards in key legislative districts. He once attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a housing project in North Carolina that was funded with a grant from a program whose budget Bush tried to cut by more than $1 billion. Martinez spent the bulk of his final year at HUD unofficially campaigning for a Senate seat in Florida, a state he visited 16 times in 21 months, much of it on the taxpayer dime. Martinez’s travel record earned him a reputation among housing activists as the HUD secretary who did no work, which perhaps was fitting for a man who once told an affordable housing group the federal government had no role in providing affordable housing.
Jackson carried on this legacy when he took over at HUD in 2004. He might have remained below the radar had he not given a speech in Dallas in 2006 saying that he’d canceled the contract a HUD contractor who admitted to disliking President Bush. The comments sparked an FBI and federal grand jury investigation that have dogged Jackson the past few years and led to questions about whether HUD improperly awarded a controversial $127 million contract to Jackson’s former employer, which still owes him at least $250,000.
But like Martinez before him, Jackson has been most notable for his absence. While people who’ve lost their homes to foreclosure have begun to set up tent camps—”Bushvilles”—in California and elsewhere, Jackson has been busy with other things, like allegedly hassling local housing authorities to help out his friends. His agency has been a nonentity during the nation’s biggest housing crisis in modern history.
We should have seen it all coming. Late last year, HUD spent $100,000 to have Jackson’s portrait painted and installed in the new HUD auditorium. (The rush-job contract also included portraits of the previous four secretaries.) No matter that HUD’s budget has plummeted by billions of dollars under the Bush administration, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without housing vouchers and access to affordable housing. Or that Bush’s 2009 proposed budget for HUD would eliminate vast swaths of programs that affect everyone from senior citizens to people with AIDS. Jackson’s office told the Washington Post that the portrait was in order because the last HUD secretary to have his portrait painted was the late Samuel Pierce. It looks like Jackson may emulate Pierce with more than just a portrait.