The District’s chief tax appraiser resigned Monday amid controversy over reductions in the proposed assessments of hundreds of commercial properties that cut the city’s tax base by $2.6 billion.
Tony L. George, who joined the District government less than a year ago, has also been criticized for misstating on his job application why he left a previous government job in Fulton County, Ga.
George’s resignation is the latest sign of turmoil in the city’s tax office, overseen by Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi for more than a decade. Gandhi, who has been widely credited with improving the city’s finances, has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks. Even Gandhi’s closest allies on the D.C. Council have faulted the agency for failing to release audits that chronicled problems in the tax office.
“This should be a message to the CFO to be more transparent with both the residential and commercial assessment process,” D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said Monday.
In recent months, The Washington Post detailed the property tax deals while internal auditors at the agency cited weak oversight of tax office procedures in a March audit.
The agency’s internal affairs chief, William J. DiVello, resigned on the spot this month, complaining that senior managers had refused to make public a revised version of the audit.
Evans said that he confirmed George’s resignation with the general counsel of the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
An agency official did not respond to an e-mail and a phone call requesting comment. George did not respond to a request for comment that was sent to his personal e-mail account.
At an oversight hearing convened by the D.C. Council Committee on Finance and Revenue last week, Evans raised the issue of George’s D.C. job application. George stated on the application that he had left the job in Georgia because his contract was completed. But his contract had been terminated, and he had sued Fulton County for discrimination and breach of contract.
“If he lied on his résumé, he should be fired,” Evans said Monday.
George apparently left the office early Thursday, the day after the hearing, and has not returned, according to people with knowledge of the agency who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Questions were first raised about George’s tenure as chief appraiser after The Post reported in August that his office had struck hundreds of deals with commercial property owners, settling tax disputes before the city’s appeals process could play out.
The $2.6 billion in total reductions, which Gandhi has said were necessary to avoid litigation, lowered potential city revenue in 2012 by $48 million from what the original proposed assessments would have generated.
The reductions created dissension within the tax office. One employee filed an anonymous complaint on an employee hotline, and the FBI and internal auditors have been investigating, according to several people familiar with the probe.
The Post last month detailed problems with George’s job application. George made no mention on the application that his contract with Fulton County was terminated in the fourth year of a five-year deal. When asked on his D.C. job application the reason for leaving his Fulton post as assistant chief appraiser, George cited “completion of contract.”
Fulton County officials told The Post that George’s contract was terminated after he unilaterally lowered property values. D.C. Council members have since raised questions about the quality of background checks made by Gandhi’s agency.
Former council member William P. Lightfoot, who called for Gandhi’s resignation at the hearing last week, said Monday that George’s departure “provides an opportunity to equalize the treatment between residential owners and commercial owners.”
“Residential property owners deserve the right to settle claims just like commercial property owners,” Lightfoot said.
But he said people who work for Gandhi should not take all the blame for the agency’s problems. “When will Gandhi take personal responsibility for the misdeeds in his office and stop blaming others?” Lightfoot asked.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said he is considering creating an ombudsman’s position for the tax office to serve as a public advocate. He said that he, too, is concerned that commercial property owners, armed with lawyers, have been able to negotiate settlements.
“You should have a tax system that is fair and stable and that does not require a standing army of lawyers to negotiate or navigate,” Catania said Monday.
Catania also said he wants to give the agency’s internal affairs unit, known as the Office of Integrity and Oversight, more independence.
At a council meeting Tuesday, Catania plans to present emergency legislation that would require that Gandhi give all internal audits to council members and post full versions on the Internet.
“This is a system that could stand to be improved, and it gets improved by having true information come out, by having it see the light of day,” Catania said.
The tax office has struggled for years with high-profile problems, including the 2007 arrest of a mid-level manager who stole $48 million through fraudulent refunds, the largest embezzlement in city history.