[News] Oops: Impostor scams Louisiana officials

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 30 08:38:58 EDT 2006

Oops: Impostor scams Louisiana officials

http://edition.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/08/28/hud.hoax/ (includes link 
to CNN video report)

KENNER, Louisiana (CNN) -- A man who pulled a hoax on Louisiana 
officials and 1,000 contractors by presenting himself as a federal 
housing official said Monday he intended to focus attention on a lack 
of affordable housing.

"We basically go around impersonating bad institutes or institutes 
doing very bad things," said the man, who identified himself as Andy 
Bichlbaum, a 42-year-old former college teacher of video and media 
arts who lives in New York and Paris.

"That would be HUD. At this moment, they're doing some really bad things."

Masquerading as Rene Oswin, an official at the Department of Housing 
and Urban Development, Bichlbaum followed Louisiana Gov. Kathleen 
Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to the lectern Monday morning 
at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner.

In a speech to attendees of the Gulf Coast Reconstruction and 
Hurricane Preparedness Summit, he laid out grandiose plans for HUD to 
reverse course.

After the speaker read from a text he said had been prepared by his 
boss, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, a HUD spokeswoman said the 
department knew nothing about the man.

"Everything is going to change about the way we work, and the change 
is going to start here today in New Orleans," the man said during his speech.

Jackson, he said, had had to cancel his appearance at the meeting of 
1,000 builders and contractors at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner 
because he had to stay in Washington to meet with President Bush.

William Loiry, president of meeting sponsor Equity International, 
said he was duped.

"We were contacted about a week ago or so by someone who we believed 
to be [public relations firm] Hill & Knowlton [saying] that they were 
representing the HUD secretary and that he wanted to make a major 
announcement at this summit."

Loiry said he was told a few minutes before he had planned to 
introduce Jackson that the secretary would be replaced by Oswin.

"We've done 75 national conferences, 25,000 people participated, and 
we certainly never encountered anything like this before," he said.

The man left a flier bearing a HUD emblem that said attendees could 
go to a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a public housing project. A free 
lunch and transportation aboard buses were promised.

"They never materialized," Loiry said.

Loiry was not impressed with the stunt. "There are many people still 
in need," he said in a written statement. "To perpetuate a hoax on 
them is cruel and disgusting."

Impostor: 'We have failed'

In his speech, Bichlbaum said the department's mission was to ensure 
affordable housing is available for those who need it.

"This year, in New Orleans, I'm ashamed to say we have failed," he said.

To change that, HUD would reverse its plans to demolish 5,000 units 
"of perfectly good public housing," with housing in the city in tight 
supply, he said.

Former occupants have been "begging to move back in," he said. "We're 
going to help them to do that."

The government's practice had been to tear down public housing where 
it could, because such projects were thought to cause crime and 
unemployment, he said.

But crime rates in the city are at a record high and there is no 
evidence that people in the projects are more likely to be unemployed, he said.

The man added that it also would be essential to create conditions 
for prosperity.

Toward that end, he said, Wal-Mart would withdraw its stores from 
near low-income housing and "help nurture local businesses to replace them."

Wal-Mart was unmoved. "As evidenced by the fact that we recently 
reopened two stores in the New Orleans metropolitan area, there is 
absolutely no truth to these statements," said spokeswoman Marisa Bluestone.

In a comment that elicited applause from the contractors and 
builders, Bichlbaum said, "With your help, the prospects of New 
Orleanians will no longer depend on their birthplace, and the cycle 
of poverty will come to an end."

Finally, to ensure another hurricane does not inundate the city, 
Exxon and Shell have promised to spend $8.6 billion "to finance 
wetlands rebuilding from $60 billion in profits this year," he said.

HUD: 'Who the heck is that?'

Late Monday afternoon, in a telephone call with CNN, Bichlbaum said 
the gist of his comments about housing was truthful, even if he had 
to use subterfuge to deliver it.

"The only not-true part is, unfortunately, the part about them 
changing their minds. They are still going to tear down 5,000 units 
of affordable housing," he said.

The New Orleans projects are sturdily constructed brick buildings 
that, nevertheless, are slated for demolition, he said.

"Basically, the real reason, of course, is they want to develop New 
Orleans into something pleasing to tourists -- even more pleasing."

Bichlbaum said Monday's prank was the latest in a series pulled off 
by The Yes Men, whose members have recently masqueraded as 
representatives of McDonald's, Halliburton and Dow Chemical.

"Fortunately, the law protects freedom of speech," he said. "What 
we're doing is not actually lying. It's actually exposing the lies. 
There's nothing morally wrong with what we're doing."

Bichlbaum said The Yes Men plan to release a movie about their 
exploits next year, but that commercial gain is not their goal.

"The real reason we do it is what we're doing right now," he told a 
reporter. "You're paying attention to this issue of affordable 
housing and the absurd policies of HUD."

In Washington, HUD spokeswoman Donna White called the hoax "sick."

"This announcement is totally false; it's totally bogus," said Donna 
White in Washington.

No one named Rene Oswin works for the department, she said. "I'm 
like, who the heck is that?"

Jackson, White said, had never planned to address the meeting. "I 
don't even want to refer to it as a joke," White said. "At this 
point, it's not funny."

Annie Chen, media coordinator for Survivors Village, a tent-city 
protest for the reopening of public housing in New Orleans, applauded 
Bichlbaum's theatrics.

"Right now, a lie is better than the truth," she said.

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