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ROBIN HUD TEACHES FEDS A LESSON

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Although crime should not be condoned, it's easy to sympathize with the motives of a Maryland woman nicknamed "Robin HUD" by investigators who says she embezzled millions from the government to give to the poor.

Marilyn Harrell is a private escrow agent who handled closings on the sales of properties foreclosed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She soon discovered that HUD accounting procedures were so messed up that if she failed to turn over money from a closing, the department wouldn't even realize it.So she started keeping the money, and the department didn't figure things out until she had taken $5.5 million, by her own estimate. Even she was surprised the feds didn't catch on sooner. She used the money to found a charity and rent or buy 20 homes and nearly 40 cars for the needy. She may, she admits, have also used some of the cash to build herself a swimming pool, remodel her basement and buy a wide-screen TV.

HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, appropriately "very upset" by the losses and the system that allowed them to occur, has ordered an immediate investigation.

It's probably hoping for too much, but it would be nice if the investigation could look into whether the charity system Harrell set up, even discounting it for her swimming-pool commission, helped the poor more efficiently than some of the assistance programs run by HUD.

It's just a thought.