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Lawmakers Delete Penalties For Misusing Housing Funds Gorton-Sponsored Provision Killed In Conference Committee

James V. Grimaldi And Deborah Nelson The Seattle Times

Tough penalties for anyone caught misusing tribal-housing money were deleted from a federal spending bill this week.

The measure would have required the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to bar offenders from the tribal-housing program for life and to recover any misspent money.

But the penalties were quietly deleted Tuesday night by a joint House and Senate conference committee working out differences in appropriations bills that allotted money for HUD and other agencies.

The measure had been approved unanimously by the Senate after it was offered by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., on the Senate floor. But the provision was not in the House bill, and the conference committee dropped it.

Its removal comes as legislation was to be introduced in the House to increase accountability in the housing program.

Earlier this year, The Seattle Times documented dozens of cases across the country in which federal money intended to house needy Native-American families was wasted, mismanaged or spent on large houses and expensive renovations.

The new bill, written by Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Wash., provides more public scrutiny of tribal-housing programs rather than the tougher penalties sought in the unsuccessful measure.

It is meant to close some gaps in a new law that gives tribes more freedom in how they use federal housing grants. It also would fix a technical glitch in the law that inadvertently hurt smaller tribes, Metcalf’s staff said.

According to Metcalf spokesman Chris Strow, the proposed legislation would:

Let HUD select the auditors who review tribal-housing programs. This would end the longtime practice of letting tribes choose their own auditors at HUD’s expense, and ensure a more independent review.

Permit greater public disclosure of tribal records and waiting lists for homes. The federal Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to tribal governments, so it’s difficult for tribal members and the rest of the public to track what happens to federal housing money.

Require the tribes to submit more detailed housing plans to HUD and give the secretary more flexibility in reviewing them.

Correct an error in the new formula for determining how much each tribe gets annually for low-income housing. The formula guarantees a baseline amount of funding each year for every tribe. But the baseline for some small tribes could be zero under the current language.

HUD officials said they had not yet reviewed the proposed legislation. The regulations were developed over the past year by the agency and tribal leaders.

Metcalf, who is working closely on the bill with Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., will not include the tough language deleted from the appropriations bill. Campbell also has been working on companion legislation in the Senate, but it was unclear last night when it would be introduced.

For this year, the provision appears to be dead, a Gorton spokeswoman said, and cannot be added back into the spending bill, which passed 405-21 in the House last night and is expected also to pass the Senate without a hitch.

Gorton had written the language after reading The Times’ series.

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