Housing Secretary Jack Kemp conceded Saturday that being a Ronald Reagan supporter has made him less willing to blame his predecessor publicly for years of abuse now being uncovered within his department.
Noting the partisan ethics controversies swirling around Congress in recent months and increasingly around Washington in recent years, Kemp turned aside repeated attempts in an interview to get him to fault Samuel Pierce, Housing and Urban Development Department secretary under Reagan."There were problems, there was mismanagement, there were programs that were abused and there was political influence going on a lot longer than just the eight (Reagan) years," Kemp protested on CNN's "Evans and Novak" program.
"There was a systemic flaw that had to be corrected," he said, using a phrase he then emphasized several times. "I am outraged at what I have found at HUD but, again, I am going to put the blame as much as possible on those systemic problems that were allowed to exist."
Pressed on the question of responsibility at the top, however, the former congressman eventually explained, "I'm not trying to shift the blame, but I don't want to get into name-calling. This is an atmosphere in which some people would like to use it in a partisan way, and I'm a Republican, a strong supporter of the Reagan administration."
News reports and congressional hearings have begun to uncover years of abuse, fraud and embezzlement in HUD programs, and Kemp has promised to clean up the agency, involving the FBI and a private accounting firm at various levels.
Attorney General Dick Thornburgh gave orders Thursday for investigations at every local HUD office in the nation, searching for millions of dollars lost, diverted or stolen in recent years.
Kemp vowed Saturday, "Where there are criminal acts, they will be fully prosecuted. Where the system is flawed, I will correct that system. (But) I just don't want to spend all my time cursing the darkness. I want to light some candles and move forward."
Kemp suggested wrongdoing was "inevitable the way the programs were designed and, unfortunately, the way they were managed." But he quickly added, "I am not so cynical as to believe (it cannot be changed). It's not inevitable that everybody's dishonest."
HUD Inspector General Paul Adams told Congress Friday that he warned top department officials in 1987 about possible embezzlement in the agency but they did nothing. Adams defended himself to Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who told him at a hearing that "it almost strikes me like you're covering your rear end" by having reported problems without pressing harder for action.
Kemp noted Pierce "is going to testify and has testified before Congress" on the situation. In the meantime, however, he told his interviewers, "I don't think while an investigation is going on that either I or you, frankly, should be sitting here in moral judgment. He was a dedicated public servant."