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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Rattling HUD’s Skeletons

A few times a year, a tall bearded man in his late thirties is seen in front of the main building in down­town Washington of the De­partment of Housing and Urban Development offer­ing a newsletter called IM­PACT to emerging employees.

He is Al Louis Ripskis, a veteran HUD employee him­self, and the editor-producer of the most dura­ble “underground” publica­tion in the massive federal establishment..

IMPACT reduces to the written word many of the happenings at HUD which usually are reserved for corridor talk or the whis­pers of worried bureau­crats.

The large public relations efforts and official publica­tions of departments such as HUD do not focus on the waste, frivolities, boondoggles and policy failures. This gives a publication like IMPACT its purpose.

Ripskis publishes his eight-page, fact-filled pack­age each month for distri­bution to HUD civil ser­vants and appointed execu­tives throughout the coun­try along with assorted firms, bankers, legislators and others who pay the modest SS annual subscrip­tion.

There is still a deficit, however, which amounts to about a year, Ripskis says. This comes out of his own pocket. He is assisted by HUD regional “corre­spondents” in large cities such as Chicago and Phila­delphia and some of his as­sociates in the Washington, D.C., HUD headquarters.

IMPACT is not your typi­cal irreverent in-house bulletin-board sheet. It deals with serious policy failings, such as HUD’s lag­gardness in effectively doing something about the lead paint poisoning of little children living in crumbling city tenements. Or the stub­born refusal of HUD offi­cials to learn from past mis­takes in public housing and start new directions that will put billions of dollars to work rather than to waste.

ARTICLES with titles like “Rattling Skeletons in HUD’s Closet,” “Redlining — HUD Style,” “FHA Hits Rock Bottom,” “Secretary Hills’ First 100 Days” and “Ripping Off Uncle Sugar . . . with the Great­est of Ease” introduce a good deal of factual re­search and digging.

There are light touches, still expensive for the tax­payers, though, such as the twin, 80-foot aluminum flag­poles that a competitive
HUD put up to replace poles shorter than the 75-footers across the street at the De­partment of Transportation. Cost: a mere 526,581.

Not surprisingly, this probing and publishing makes Ripskis’ days on the job less daily. He is not exactly ostracized; in fact, he has become somewhat of an accepted maverick in. the department. People come to him with griev­ances and information be­cause they view him as a kind of unofficial ombuds­man.

But he is also closely watched by top HUD offi­cials. He takes “annual leave” whenever he uses a fraction of an hour off to interview or obtain materi­al for IMPACT. That is the way he uses up most of his annual vacation time.

I ASKED HIM why he is doing all this. He replied that back in 1972, he was helping a fellow HUD employee put out a milder news­letter named “QUEST” when his friend found him­self transferred to Alaska.

“Having lived under both the Nazis and the Commu­nists in Lithuania before coming to America at age 12, I remember relatives being shipped to Siberia and I wasn’t going to look the other way in the U.S.A.,” he said.

Beyond those feelings, Ripskis is a student of bu­reaucracy and what it can do to still the conscience and innovation of decent people caught, up in its phlegmatic processes. He has seen dedicated people slowly worn down to the point of losing their cour­age, their convictions and their initiative, ending up just putting their time in or simply leaving.

Ripskis doesn’t quit. He hangs in there and fights, keeping the flame of public service going through a combination of patience and impatience and, as he puts it, “a willingness to risk my job.”

Other government agen­cies and departments need their Al Ripskises. So do citi­zen and community groups trying to make their gov­ernments more responsive. Political candidates are having a field day stere­otyping all bureaucracies instead of finding the work­ing models and environ­ments of good works with which to challenge the rest of the dreary landscape.

READERS who want to know more about IMPACT can write to Ripskis at P.O. Box 23126, Washington, D.C. 20024. He’ll reply, on his own time.