One good indication an institution is up to no good and probably guilty of the sin you suspect it of is an extremely thin-skinned response to your complaint. If they’re not feeling guilty, they wouldn’t be thin-skinned.
With thin skin as my scale, I don’t know who measures up as guiltier of sin — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or Dallas City Hall. It’s a horse-race.
I guess I sort of knew about the city’s part already from past debates on an ethics code for the city, but the full impact hadn’t hit me square in the gut until somebody told me about a guy who had filed an ethics complaint recently against a person who sits on a powerful appointive board.
For the sake of argument, and because we’re about to talk about a form letter, let’s not go into the guy’s specific complaint. I know what it is. I have no idea if it’s valid. Could be. Could be not.
Here’s the point: A week or so after he files his complaint with the city, he gets back a form letter from the city secretary warning him that, “falsely accusing someone of a violation of this chapter may result in criminal prosecution of anyone who knowingly makes a false accusation. Consider this letter your official notification.”
Let me make a stipulation here: I am not blaming or berating the city secretary for sending out this stupid and untruthful letter of intimidation, because I know that the city secretary is required by city ordinance to send out stupid and untruthful letters of intimidation with exactly this wording whenever somebody files an ethics complaint against a city official.
A city secretary who failed to send a stupid and untruthful letter of intimidation to a citizen who had availed himself of his constitutionally protected rights of petition and free speech could be fired, under the existing ordinance, for failure to stupidly intimidate.
I know under the city’s employment rules there is an elaborate appeals procedure, but at the very least the city secretary would find herself sitting before a panel of high city officials who would ask the tough question: “Did you or did you not fail to stupidly and untruthfully intimidate this citizen as required by Dallas city ordinance?”
I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
I use the legal terms, stupid and untruthful, because only the stupid City Council members who forced the city attorney to cobble up this mishmash of total constitutional ignorance would actually believe it could ever be a crime or that any American citizen could ever be prosecuted for addressing his government in any fashion for any purpose other than a death threat, whether in complaint, praise or telling a knock-knock joke.
As I say, I was vaguely aware that the council stuck all of this ignorant Mafia-style lingo into the ethics ordinance 16 years ago, but I guess the full human impact never hit me until a couple months ago when my informant called me and told me about this particular case.
I asked that the person who had called me get me a copy of the letter from his friend, who had filed the complaint. But he called back and said the person who had received the letter had been told he was not allowed to talk to the media. And, oh, would I not love to be a fly on the wall with a fly-sized digital recorder clutched tightly in my proboscis when some city official said any of that to a citizen.
Just for the record: It’s America. Until November, it’s still a free country. You can talk to anybody you want to talk to. You can talk to your neighbor, your priest, your UPS guy. You can talk to me, because that’s all I am — another guy. Any city official who tells you different is engaging in totally unconstitutional Mafia-style thuggery.
I did get a copy of the guy’s letter after I agreed to redact all identifying information. We spoke here recently about some redaction experiences I had with HUD. I felt a bit creeped-out being the redactor this time, but I understood the man’s fears.
Which brings us to HUD. I told you a couple months ago about a group of Oak Cliff homeowners who complained to HUD that the city was violating federal law by steering subsidized housing into their neighborhood. Instead of the standard NIMBY complaint, this one was more sophisticated, based on federal law, HUD’s own rules and court rulings providing that subsidized housing must not be concentrated in poor areas.
We won’t go too deeply into that here except to say that federal housing money is supposed to achieve desegregation and other social goods. Jamming it all into already poor segregated areas doesn’t do anybody any good, including the people who already live there. So, in other words, Dr. Do-Good, how about putting some of it in North Dallas for a change?
But forget all that. The nature of the complaint isn’t really germane here. It’s HUD’s response to an American citizen.
The eight people who filed complaints with HUD all received letters telling them HUD needed to know, “your daytime telephone number with area code, your email address, the basis of your complaint (race, color, etc.), any harm you have suffered due to the alleged discrimination, any council meetings you attended.”
Plus, the HUD letter asked them this question: “Did you raise objections at the time? On what was your objection based?”
So, wait. These people sent a letter to their federal government alleging a violation of federal laws and/or policies and rules. And they get back a letter asking them about the communications they may or may not have had with their city government.
The person I heard from in that group was Raymond Crawford, an experienced and respected community activist best known, before this, for the organizing and advocacy he has carried out on the fracking issue. It so happens he reads my stuff on occasion, very much to his credit I think. He is familiar with the many stories I have written about the Lockey and MacKenzie HUD housing segregation litigation.
That means Crawford and his neighbors are well aware that HUD and the city are accused of colluding to concentrate subsidized housing in their part of the city. They get this letter from HUD asking about what they have or have not said at City Council meetings, and they deduce — duh! — that HUD and the city are already on the horn with each other about their complaints.
So here is HUD asking some kind of legalacious knock-out questions that sound like HUD is already working with the city to get the goods on them.
Why would HUD, a federal agency, ask any citizen about his or her prior speech before a local government? How the hell is that any of HUD’s business?
Unlike the poor guy I told you about above who filed an ethics complaint with the city, Crawford has been around the block a few times and doesn’t scare easy, even though he took the letter as an obvious attempt to do just that: “I felt like it was a very polite government intimidation letter,” he told me.
But rather than crawl away, Crawford penned a long lovely letter (copy below) to HUD telling them all about himself, giving them a lot of useful history of their own misdeeds in Dallas in case they had forgotten and explaining in some detail about those important meetings with the city:
“While I and others have attended numerous council meetings and public forums in the past,” Crawford told HUD, “I did not attend any council meeting or briefing regarding the Blue Ridge housing development in District 3 because I, nor my neighbors were informed by our council member about this important topic.”
By the way, the subsidized housing development in question here is being shot-gunned by a former aide to a former City Council member. This guy also is a former member of the city plan commission. He is now a private sector subsidized housing developer. My understanding is that he hasn’t missed a meeting yet.
In the way of a friendlier more respectful letter of response, what might either of these government agencies, HUD or the city of Dallas, have sent to the citizens who had reached out to them? Well, they could have said something like this:
“We have your letter. We take these matters very seriously. We are here to serve you. Please find our contact information below. We’ll be in touch.”
What is a citizen supposed to infer, instead, from a response that maybe says some of that but then adds, “If your allegations don’t stick, we will attempt to imprison you. Who else have you been talking to? And we are the government, so we know where youse lives.”
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(“Youse” is a Yankee usage meaning you, associated with gangsters in old movies and with some white residents of Chicago to this day.)
I am personally deeply grateful that there are people out there like Crawford who only get angrier when they experience this kind of totally impertinent push-back from government entities. But I worry about the other guy. He really thought he wasn’t allowed to talk to the media.
The real sin I see in both of these responses is government trying to tell people they cannot speak — speak to me, speak to government, speak to anybody government doesn’t want them speaking to. That in itself should be a hanging offense.