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Cuomo's HUD statistics disputed

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From Newsday

Newsday Staff Writer
August 3, 2006, 8:22 PM EDT

In his campaign for state attorney general Andrew Cuomo has suggested repeatedly that as federal housing secretary he dramatically increased anti-discrimination efforts and doubled fair housing "enforcement actions," but a 2001 report by a federal disability-rights panel contradicts that claim.

Cuomo made the assertion in a July 12 policy paper on his commitment to environmental enforcement, which is posted on his Web site. His campaign repeated it Monday in a release on his commitment to civil rights. Cuomo "dramatically expanded ... fair housing enforcement actions, more than doubling the number of enforcement actions to over 2,000," the release said.

But the report by the National Council on Disability, an agency that advises the president and Congress, found that under Cuomo the Department of Housing and Urban Development had manufactured the "doubling" claim by expanding the definition of an "enforcement action" and counting a variety of resolutions that hadn't been included in previous years.

"HUD was not comparing apples to apples when it made its claim that it had exceeded its doubling objective," wrote the council. Without the change in definitions, the group found, HUD's fair-housing enforcement actions had actually dropped by 18 percent under Cuomo from 1997 to 2000.

Questions about Cuomo's "doubling" claim were first raised in a Newsday article in 2001, when he ran for governor. In 2002, the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington group that monitors civil rights policy, published a critical report on Cuomo's tenure that called the doubling claim "false."

But Cuomo has renewed the claim this year to burnish his law enforcement credentials as he faces a four-way Democratic primary and, potentially, Republican Jeanine Pirro in November.

His campaign says the doubling claim is accurate, and points to brief passages that repeat it in lengthy, agency-wide HUD performance reviews that were prepared after Secretary Mel Martinez, Cuomo's Republican successor, took office.

Cuomo campaign sources argue that the council report was influenced by fair-housing advocates with personal beefs about some of his decisions, and contend the GOP would never have given a Democrat credit if it wasn't due.

"The Bush administration, by its own account, implicitly rejects the report from that National Disability Council," said his spokeswoman, Wendy Katz.

Political foes, however, criticized Cuomo for misleading voters. "Andrew Cuomo appears to be more interested in public relations than in combating discrimination," said Democratic primary opponent Mark Green.

In its report, the disability council explained that before Cuomo, HUD defined "enforcement actions" as discrimination charges brought by HUD or cases referred to the Justice Department. From 1993 to 1996, 1,085 cases fell in those two categories. That number declined to 885 under Cuomo.

But during his tenure, the agency expanded the definition to include some settlements and to separately count multiple claimants benefiting from a single case. It was adding those categories that boosted the total of claimed "enforcement actions" to 2,922, the council report said.

The group found that, in fact, the fair-housing enforcement staff at HUD decreased by 9 percent under Cuomo, and the average time it took to dispose of complaints increased from 350 to 497 days. The report also complained that Cuomo's "keen personal interest" in devoting staff to finding "hot cases" worthy of press coverage produced some "public victories" but had "a measurably negative impact on the routine enforcement business."

Those criticisms reflected the mixed reviews Cuomo's performance still receives.

Fans praise him for winning some big cases and giving housing discrimination a high profile. Texas civil rights lawyer and former Cuomo HUD aide Elizabeth Julian calls him a fair housing "champion."

But critics see shortcomings. "He promotes himself as the enforcement king of fair housing," said Shanna Smith of the National Fair Housing Alliance. "But it's my opinion that he's a failure at enforcement."