But HUD officials said a report critical of the Community Builders program is itself a one-sided political document timed to strengthen the Republican position as the government scrambles to finish the federal budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
"Clearly, this isn't about the merits of the Community Builders program," David Egner, a HUD spokesman, said Wednesday. "It's just about scoring partisan political points."
In the report, released Sept. 30, HUD's independent inspector general's office called the Community Builders program an "overly expensive" endeavor that exacerbates the department's long-standing management problems.
"In our opinion, HUD should discontinue the Community Builder position," the report said. "It cannot afford the Community Builder concept."
The program was created in 1997 to separate "customer service" functions in HUD from the department's operation, monitoring, enforcement and policing of dozens of housing programs. At the time it was touted as one of Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo's efforts to overhaul HUD and do away with its reputation as a "poster child of inept government."
"It was about not having the same person playing both good cop and bad cop," a senior HUD official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
HUD officials said 400 employees in the department were transferred into the Community Builders program and another 400 were hired from the outside.
But the department's auditors said the reorganization was not properly planned or implemented, and HUD officials may have violated hiring rules in building its staff.
"To establish the Community Building position, HUD had to allocate salary, training and travel dollars, as well as personnel, from its monitoring and enforcement role at a time when the department was already significantly decreasing its workforce," the report said.
The result, the auditors said, was a dramatic increase in the number of HUD employees "not part of a specific program, engaged in customer relations and owing their jobs to the department's political management."
President Clinton supports the program so strongly his senior advisors have recommended that he veto an appropriations bill funding HUD if Republicans in Congress persist in trying to kill it.
In a statement Friday, the White House Office of Management and Budget said on reason advisors would recommend a veto is because "the administration strongly objects to the Senate's intention to eliminate the Community Builders Program."
Egner also said several independent consulting firms, including Ernst & Young, have praised the program as innovative and effective.
A letter signed by 17 Democratic senators Wednesday praised Community Builders and urged Appropriations Committee Chairman Christopher Bond, R-Mo., to reconsider a plan to reduce or eliminate it.
"At a minimum, it is clearly far too early to judge whether the program should be terminated," the letter said. "In addition, the current bill significantly reduces HUD staff, thereby undermining the department's efforts to reorganize and improve its service."
HUD and the department's independent inspector general's office have clashed before. An apparent feud between Inspector General Susan Gaffney and top housing officials spilled into the public in March, when Deputy Secretary Saul Ramirez told a Senate subcommittee that Gaffney had taken a "destructive, attack approach" to the department.