The Longer HUD Hides Its Secrets, the Better They Must Be

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This is like two weeks before Christmas when I was 7 years old. I’m so excited. I know it’s going to be something very good. There is no way the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would devote this much energy to keeping something away from little old me unless it was going to be really, really, really good.

There’s no way HUD would go these lengths to prevent me from seeing information they have already agreed I have a right to see unless it’s good enough to have them quaking in their boots.

I know I’ll get to see it eventually, because even they agree they can’t keep me away from it forever. The longer they stall, the better I think my inevitable Freedom of Information Act Christmas present will be.

When I lay my head upon the pillow at night, visions of major political figures dance in my head, up to their necks in skulduggery. Forgive me. I’m a hopeless romantic.

I asked HUD on Nov. 10 to give me all the information they had about 1600 Pacific Ave., a tower renovation project in Dallas at the center of the Lockey and MacKenzie litigation, about which I have written several tons in this space over the last five years. 

On June 13, a mere seven months after my request was made, HUD sent me what I hoped was kind of a joke response, although I hadn’t previously thought of them as big jokers. I have reproduced a copy of their letter below, because I was afraid you might think I was making this stuff up.

They said they were sending me some of the emails and other correspondence I had asked for, but they said they had to redact (cross out) some things. They explained their reasons for the cross-outs:

“The release of this internal information would reflect the agency’s predecisional deliberative process and would discourage open and candid advice, recommendations and exchange of views within the agency, which could bring about public scrutiny of the individuals and the need to justify in public their tentative opinions.”

That worried me as soon as I read it, because it seemed to me all of the predecisional deliberative stuff was exactly what I wanted them to reveal and justify in public. Specifically I was looking for evidence about a deal I knew had taken place between the mayor of Dallas and the secretary of HUD to let Dallas off the hook on some serious racial segregation issues turned up by HUD’s own four-year investigation

But I told myself to be calm, to give them the benefit of the doubt and go ahead and review the redactions one by one to see if I thought they were justified or not. I did that. Calmly. And if you do take time to look at the document at the bottom of this story, you will see what they had sent me — 21 blank pages. On each page, someone had placed a sheet of white paper so that every page was entirely blank.

Now that’s redaction.
A lesser man might have been angered by this taunt, but not I. I took myself to the men’s room, dashed a couple of handfuls of cold water on my face, looked into the mirror and said, “Jim, this is just HUD’s sense of humor. Ha. Ha. Ha.”

You may wonder if I was just idly fishing for something I had no reason to believe was true. Oh, goodness no. I’m not out to waste people’s time. The big Sherlock Holmes clue I was acting on, in fact, was that Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings had been quoted in the newspaper saying he had done some sweet deal with HUD Secretary Julian Castro.

The backstory is this: HUD investigated Dallas City Hall for four years, finding in 2013 that the city had been violating federal housing law for 10 years by pursuing policies that reinforced racial segregation. That meant Dallas was going to have to change its ways and stop reinforcing segregation.

A year later Rawlings got with the newly appointed HUD Secretary, former San Antonio Mayor Castro. They met in person, I believe, but also surely spoke on the phone and by email and text, as people do.

In a short time Rawlings persuaded Castro to ditch the whole HUD investigation and its findings and let Dallas off the hook with little more than a soft kiss on the wrist. At a subsequent City Council meeting, Rawlings lavished thanks on Castro for his help. “His commitment on this was remarkable, to be this hands-on,” Rawlings said.

Yeah, well that was the part I was going for. The hands. I never wanted to destroy HUD’s ability to have predecisional deliberations. I just wanted them to show me the Rawlings and Castro stuff.

The HUD findings were based on law. HUD’s own investigators spent four years on it and came to the conclusion that Dallas was taking a ton of federal money, falsely swearing every year to be spending it on what the law said it was for – desegregation. Only Dallas was spending it to increase segregation by building a new fancy segregated neighborhood in the old towers downtown. That’s what you call the Dallas sense of humor.

And, look, HUD’s not the ultimate hammer, necessarily. Just because they said Dallas was breaking the law, that didn’t mean Dallas had to accept their word for it and lie down and die. As with any allegation of lawbreaking, Dallas had the right to go into court and defend itself.

But this thing never got to court. Two Texas politicians, Rawlings and Castro, got side by side and made it go away. And I don’t know how two politicians can snap their fingers, dance a little two-step, shake hands and make a question of federal law-breaking just go up in smoke like that.
That’s what I’m looking for. That’s why I filed my request.

If you look at their letter to me, you may also notice that they said they had a bunch more documents I could see, but I would have to review them in HUD’s offices. They told me to contact Patricia Campbell, the public affairs officer in HUD’s Region VI headquarters in Fort Worth.

I did. I asked when I could see the other documents.

She emailed me back on Aug. 3: “Let me check, I know they have been working on it. To be clear, you want to come to the Fort Worth Regional Office to inspect the documents?”

I emailed her back: “I would rather do it in Dallas. I thought I had to go to Fort Worth.”

She emailed me back: “You would. We no longer have an office in Dallas.”

Well, now, see, there’s that HUD sense of humor again.

I emailed her back: “Great, Fort Worth it is. Always glad for any excuse to go.”

A week later on Aug. 10, not having heard from her again, I emailed: “Are we still working on this?”

She emailed me: “We are, but it is taking time to do the review for documents for five years. ... I should know more by the end of next week.”

I sort of thought they had already reviewed them and that was how they knew which ones to cover with blank paper and which ones I could see in Fort Worth. Whatever. So “the end of next week” would have been Aug. 17.

Here we are at the end of August. Still no word.

Having been through any number of fairly massive document dumps and given that I am dealing with a federal agency, I can tell you how this is done.

Somebody sits at a computer and does a keyword search for an hour or so. The links are sent to somebody higher up who reviews the tagged documents to see which ones they have to give up and whether they need to be redacted.

I have shown up to review documents and found a small conference room stacked to the gills with file boxes full of print-outs. That’s a ploy, by the way, to make me get depressed and go home. The easier and cheaper way is for them just to put the stuff into a big digital file.

That way, when I show up they can put me at a computer terminal to review the file and take notes, tell me I can’t use my laptop or the bathroom and then sit next to me and give me the fish-eye all afternoon. I am fish-eye-proof, by the way. It just makes me want to smooch them. As for the bathroom, they always relent when I stand over the trashcan.

That whole process — review, redaction, production — is three days max. If somebody just wants to be a horse’s ass about it, they might stretch it out to a week. But here we are, two months and two weeks into it, and HUD still can’t get those documents ready for me to see.

You know what that means, right? Oh, that means happy happy Christmas when I do. For them to go to those lengths to sit on something, it has to be something really good.

Let’s say I get there and find boxes and boxes full of reams of blank pages. I’ll let you know. I’ll even take pictures. That’s kind of a cool story, too, isn’t it?

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