Watt Draws Probation in HUD Probe

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dodging a possible jail sentence, James Watt, former Interior Department secretary in the Reagan administration, was sentenced Tuesday to five years' probation, a $5,000 fine and 500 hours of community service for withholding documents from a federal grand jury investigating a Housing and Urban Development Department scandal.

After a five-year investigation by independent counsel Arlin Adams, Watt pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count in January, sidestepping 18 felony charges of perjury and of making false statements.

Saying that he "would not wish this experience on my worst enemy," Watt acknowledged in a brief statement that he had "made a serious mistake" during the investigation into influence peddling by failing to take the proceedings as seriously as he should have.

Watt had been accused of using his political connections to help clients secure millions of dollars in low-income housing funds. Since his indictment last year, the government has been working to recoup nearly $10 million in low-income housing money for a project in the Virgin Islands that allegedly was funded at Watt's request but never used to create low-income homes.

The investigation into corruption at the federal housing agency began in 1989 while Samuel R. Pierce Jr. was secretary. Although the investigation yielded 16 convictions and more than $2 million in fines, Pierce was never charged.

Watt acknowledged withholding documents and information from the grand jury in an attempt to influence their investigation into the corruption charges.

The February 1995 indictment asserted that Watt was paid more than $500,000 for contacting political appointees at HUD from 1984 through 1986.

According to one of his attorneys, Watt's belief that the investigation was politically motivated influenced his actions during the investigation.

Now living in Wyoming, Watt could have been sentenced to six months in jail for his role in the scandal. In addition to his fine and community service, Watt's sentence directs that he not own a firearm during his five-year probation.

Watt was one of President Reagan's most controversial Cabinet members. His resignation in 1983 followed his description of members of a federal advisory panel as "a black . . . a woman, two Jews and a cripple."

In December, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth cleared Watt of five charges of making false statements to a House subcommittee and two charges of lying to investigators working on the case with Adams, saying that a 1995 Supreme Court ruling narrowed the law under which Watt was charged.

In sentencing Watt, Lamberth said: "It seems to me that what you did there is out of character. It was an aberration from your life. You have had a life of great integrity and it's a shame to see what happened here."

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