As predicted, Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi fairly sailed through his D.C. Council confirmation hearing Thursday. A parade of luminaries — including a former mayor, former council members, business and labor officials — heaped praise on Gandhi during the two-and-a-half hour hearing, and he heard only a smattering of criticism from behind the dais.
It helped that his most strident critics were not in attendance — including David A. Catania (I-At Large), who had a scheduling conflict, and Eric W. Payne, Gandhi’s former contracting chief now suing him for wrongful termination, who initially indicated that he would testify before deciding not to.
The was some pushback: Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) pressed Gandhi, gently, on his famously conservative revenue estimates, and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) beseeched him to give the council a better idea where city revenues are headed during the budget process. (Gandhi’s office releases its quarterly estimate at the end of June, about two weeks after the budget is typically wrapped up.) Bowser and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) questioned him — again, gently — on the lottery contract mess, with Evans urging him to engage in a “thorough discussion” of whether to rebid the contract at the first opportunity, in 2014. And Elaine Mittleman, a Virginia lawyer long involved in litigation over land acquisition for the Skyland development, testified on her longstanding concerns about property recordkeeping.
But otherwise, mentions of the largest blemishes on Gandhi’s record — the lottery issue and the $48 million tax office theft — were fleeting, and the watchword of the day was “stability,” in these comments from Greater Washington Board of Trade CEO Jim Dinegar: “I tell you, there is a concern about stability. Dr. Gandhi brings that stability.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, it was labor leader Geo T. Johnson of AFSCME District Council 20 who put it most poignantly: “I look at the sewer that the city was in. ... People forget really easy where this city was, [and] it don’t take a whole lot to go back.” Gandhi, he said, “exemplifies what a CFO is about.”
The most impactful testimony, however, came early from former mayor Anthony A. Williams, who starts his new job as CEO of the Federal City Council on Monday. In remarks praising the “remarkable job” Gandhi’s done, he seemed to hold forth more generally on the necessity of keeping him in place in the face of recent scandals.
“I happen to think this public realm is centered ... on public trust,” Williams said. “That’s the center of our community, and it’s very, very precious. I think it’s really the driver as to why we are where we are. ... Central to that is a good custodian, a good steward of our financial affairs, and that has been Nat Gandhi.”
Afterward, Williams said he wasn’t trying to make a broader point about recent happenings. “Obviously, you know, we’re going through our difficulties in terms of public trust in government, and certainly the financial element is part of that. But I really wasn’t trying to say anything broader, except I just think it’s the cornerstone of democratic, good government.”
Also notable: Williams made pains to defend the current independence of the chief financial officer amid talk that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) had asked Gandhi to support him in asking Congress to give the mayor more control over the CFO’s office.
The current structure has been “critically important to our city,” Williams said. “We’ve come a long way because of it. I think we ought to just continue with what we have, because it’s served us well.”
Williams elaborated in an interview afterward: “It’s just looking at governments all over the place, the difficulties they face. I think elected officials would do well to consider having a bad cop who can kind of say things that people don’t like to hear. That’s an important voice in a government. ... It’s liking having an alarm clock. It would be nice to wake up on your own, but you’ve got an alarm clock here to kind of wake you up if you don’t.”
Gandhi’s nomination goes before the council’s Finance and Revenue Committee at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow. Should the panel approve it as expected, the full council could vote to confirm him as soon as July 10.