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Suit says HUD chief tied funds to favor
Yahoo News/AP
By MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press Writer
March 1, 2008

PHILADELPHIA - A seemingly ho-hum rules dispute between Philadelphia's public housing agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has led to accusations of favoritism and corruption against a member of President Bush's Cabinet.

According to the city housing authority director, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson has threatened the agency's funding since it refused to award a vacant lot worth $2 million to Kenny Gamble, a soul-music producer-turned-community developer.

Jackson, forgoing protocol, toured the site with Gamble in September 2006 without inviting local officials to join them, and later personally called Philadelphia's mayor at the time for help, according to an amended federal lawsuit filed against HUD last month by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

"This is extraordinary. He's the president's representative, and he's personally coming out, on his own, to take a firsthand look into a contract dispute?" housing authority Director Carl Greene said Thursday.

Over the past 18 months, HUD has cited the Philadelphia agency for a series of alleged shortcomings and is threatening to pull the agency from a pilot program that gives it far greater autonomy over its $350 million budget and various programs. The rebuke would cost the authority millions of dollars a year and would lead to staff layoffs and rent increases for some of its 84,000 low-income clients, Greene said.

"It's this kind of planned, deliberate harassment that adds up to retaliation," Greene said.

HUD spokesman Jerry Brown declined to comment on the accusations this past week, saying the judge presiding in the lawsuit has asked the parties not to speak to the news media. Trial is set for May 20.

In earlier news reports, Brown and several HUD officials have denied any link between the Gamble matter and the allegation of rule violations, which include handicap accessibility.

Gamble's office referred The Associated Press to Abdur-Rahim Islam, the president of the developer's enterprise, Universal Companies. Islam did not return phone messages left over the past week.

Gamble and partner Leon Huff wrote and produced "Love Train," "Me and Mrs. Jones" and other 1970s-era soul hits that embodied the "Philly Sound." In recent decades, he has devoted his time to community activism and redevelopment in South Philadelphia, where he grew up.

According to the Web site of Universal Companies, Gamble has spent more than $7 million of his own money renovating run-down homes in the area.

His Universal Community Homes, started in 1983, has twice partnered with the Philadelphia Housing Authority on redevelopment projects — but the authority said it had to take over each time.

In one project, Universal Homes and another firm built just 82 of the 236 planned units before the housing authority stepped in to finish the job, an authority spokesman said.

Under the contract, Universal was to receive a remaining lot free of charge so it could build 19 market-rate homes. But Greene and his lawyers concluded that Universal had defaulted on the deal.

Jackson, after visiting the site with Gamble, called then-Mayor John F. Street, the housing authority's chairman, the lawsuit charges.

In March 2007, three officials called Greene to seek an early response to HUD's inquiry about the lot. That prompted Greene, on March 19, to ask HUD's inspector general to investigate the HUD secretary's conduct. Greene said he presumes that investigation is ongoing.

Universal Companies also has government contracts to operate four charter and public schools and provides support services for welfare and public-housing recipients.

City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who sits on the housing authority board, said she feels that anyone who wants to develop that vacant parcel should pay for it. And she fears that the conflict will jeopardize the housing authority's work.

"I'm really frightened about it," Blackwell said. "I'm really hopeful that people that have well-meaning objectives can come together and work it out."

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