Rauner says he’s been kicking HUD ‘in the pants’; HUD says try ‘kick-starting the Cairo economy’ instead

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CAIRO — Gov. Bruce Rauner said on Saturday he’s been keeping after federal housing officials to “be more transparent” and to “move as fast as possible” as it relates to the housing crisis in Cairo.

“What we’ve encouraged HUD, and we’ve pushed them, because they’re a bureaucracy. And we’ve done, you know, we sent a letter to ’em. We’ve made calls and Kristy’s been pushing ’em,” Rauner said during an interview with The Southern Illinoisan in Cairo, referring to Kristy Stephenson, a policy adviser to the governor and his southern regional director.

CAIRO – After touring the Elmwood and McBride public housing properties that federal housing officials have been helping residents relocate fr…

“We need them to be, I’d like them to be, more transparent and also just to move as fast as possible,” Rauner continued. “Sometimes a bureaucracy needs a kick in the pants. Well, we’ve been kicking ’em in the pants. You’ve been kicking ’em in the pants. This is good. This is what it takes.”

Rauner sent a letter last month to Acting Inspector General Helen Albert of the HUD Office of Inspector General, “to encourage the completion of the ongoing investigation” by HUD “into the past management practices of the Alexander County Housing Authority.”

“Additionally, I urge the results of the investigation be as transparent as possible for the benefit of local stakeholders and the residents impacted by the public housing crisis in Cairo,” Rauner wrote in the letter. 

The letter was sent Nov. 14. It was one of several items provided to The Southern as part of a Freedom of Information Act request for all email communications between employees of HUD and Rauner’s office from April 10, when HUD officials announced that they would begin relocating about 185 families from two public housing complexes in Cairo, through Nov. 20, the date the request was made.

The emails provided as part of the public records request — only a handful of which pertained to Cairo — also showed that Sam Pfister, the director of federal affairs in Rauner’s office, sent an email on Nov. 13 to Victoria Barton, who works in HUD’s congressional relations department, asking a number of questions about the Cairo situation, such as about how many families had relocated, whether they are being “properly cared for,” about the process for obtaining relocation vouchers, whether there are residents without heat, and “HUD’s plan to get them into adequate housing.”

Both of the above mentioned emails from the governor’s office came after The Southern Illinoisan published a story on Nov. 8 titled “Where’s Gov. Rauner on Cairo housing crisis?” noting that numerous public officials — including HUD Secretary Ben Carson, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, Delta Regional Authority Federal Co-Chairman Chris Masingill, Democratic gubernatorial candidates J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy and Daniel Biss and former candidate Ameya Pawar, State Treasurer Mike Frerichs, Sen. Dale Folwer, Rep. Natalie Phelps Finnie and former Rep. Brandon Phelps, among others — had visited Cairo since HUD announced its relocation plan, but that the long list did not include Rauner.

CAIRO — The following political leaders have visited Cairo since the public housing crisis in Illinois’ southernmost city came to a head:

Comptroller Susan Mendoza visited shortly after the story published, and while delivering turkeys to a social service provider in Cairo, said that Rauner was “all Carhartt and no heart” — a nod to his penchant for wearing the popular work wear brand. On Saturday, asked if he wanted to respond to her comment, Rauner said, “That’s her role for Madigan is to say stuff like that. That’s what Madigan directs her to do.”

CAIRO — As Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza traveled to Cairo on Tuesday to deliver turkeys and hams and visit with social service provider…

After Saturday’s visit — his first to Cairo since the April 10 relocation announcement — Rauner sat down with The Southern for a roughly 25-minute interview after touring Elmwood and McBride, as well as Little Egypt Estates, a small, privately-owned complex that 10 families are moving to from the developments slated for demolition. At the end of the interview, Rauner, unprompted by a particular question, made the statement about his administration kicking HUD “in the pants.”

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown responded, in an emailed statement, that “instead of looking the other way on a problem that festered in Illinois for decades, HUD took the lead on the relocation effort in Cairo.” Brown has previously acknowledged that there were oversight failures by the federal agency concerning the events that culminated in a housing crisis, but the federal housing agency has maintained that there were failures at all levels of government, not just at HUD. For instance, Brown said the economic crisis facing Cairo can not be laid at HUD’s feet. 

“Our efforts were initiated prior to any inspiring motivational techniques employed by state officials,” Brown said. “Kick-starting the Cairo economy may prove to be more helpful.”

There have been growing tensions between HUD and the Illinois’ governor’s office of late. The Southern asked Rauner, during his visit to Cairo, to discuss the circumstances that led his office to pull the nomination of Joseph Galvan to chair the Illinois Housing Development Authority board in the spring of 2016. Galvan, who was recently named as the regional administrator for HUD’s Midwest Regional Office, held the unpaid state-level post for about 10 months upon being nominated by Rauner, but before the nomination was confirmed by the Senate.

Housing and Urban Development’s newly appointed Midwest Regional Office regional administrator has a complicated relationship with the state o…

Rauner told The Southern that the allegations received by his office resulting in the about-face on the nomination “seemed very serious and credible.” Rauner also noted that the allegations were forwarded to the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General, no findings have been forthcoming in the time since, and that he believes in an American justice system of innocent until proven guilty. Brown declined to comment on Rauner’s remarks.

Galvan was once a political ally of the governor and campaigned for him. Though of late, Galvan has posted several comments on his personal Facebook page indicating that Rauner has lost his support. For instance, Galvan posted “IVES FOR GOVERNOR” on Oct. 28, a reference to Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, who is challenging the first-term governor in the 2018 Republican primary.

On Dec. 4, Galvan shared a quote by Rauner that has circulated widely across Illinois — “I’m not in charge. I’m trying to get to be in charge.” — in which the governor claimed that Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was really running the show. Galvan’s own commentary on the post, which accompanied a link to a story in the Chicago Tribune about Ives’ primary challenge of Rauner, stated: “You are the Governor, but you proved you don’t know how to govern. Move aside.”

The emails obtained by The Southern in its FOIA request to Rauner’s office about communications between the governor’s staff and HUD staff also indicated that on Sept. 15, Pfister, Rauner’s federal liaison, reached out to HUD staff for a call about the Cairo housing crisis that Barton, with the agency’s congressional office, set up for early the following week.

Though there was very little additional communication via email about Cairo between the governor’s office and HUD, at least according to what was returned in the FOIA request, Rauner’s spokeswoman, Patty Schuh, previously said that the office has mostly been working through Bost’s congressional office to stay abreast of the situation. She also has said that Illinois Housing Development Authority officials conducted a survey of available housing in Cairo not long after HUD officials announced the relocation effort with an eventual plan to demolish Elmwood and McBride. And she noted that officials with the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity helped city officials write grants to the Delta Regional Authority that were awarded for the local health clinic and to repair the entrance road to Bunge, one of the city’s largest employers. She also said phone calls between the governor’s office and HUD officials would not have been reflected in the email correspondence provided to The Southern.

The Southern Illinoisan made at least two dozen requests for information and/or interviews about what Rauner’s office was doing to assist federal officials with the housing, health and economic crises facing Cairo from July until November. For weeks, those requests were at various times ignored, or prompted replies that the office was looking into the matter, and needed more time to respond. Eventually, in November, Schuh said that part of the issue was that HUD was not freely sharing information with the state it needed to determine where it could assist.

Brown, of HUD, offered to call Schuh. But Schuh told The Southern at the time that the governor’s office was trying to work through Bost’s office — rather than directly with HUD — so as not to create communication confusion. 

The Southern spoke with at least five different staffers in Rauner’s communication office through two significant staff transitions, most of whom are no longer working for the governor, between July and November. 

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