D.C. chief tax appraiser’s work history in question

September 27, 2012

The District’s chief tax appraiser, who is facing questions over his role in the lowering of hundreds of commercial property values, stated on his 2011 job application that he left a prior job in Georgia because his contract was completed, even though he had sued his former employer after he was terminated.

Tony L. George made no mention of his 2010 termination from Fulton County, Ga., in his fourth year of a five-year contract as assistant chief appraiser there. He had filed a lawsuit several months later against the county alleging discrimination and breach of contract. When asked on his D.C. job application for the reason for leaving his post, George cited “completion of contract.”

The discrepancy surfaced as District officials continued to urge the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer to conduct more thorough background checks of high-level job candidates. More than a decade ago, the agency discovered that its general counsel was not a lawyer.

George, hired for the D.C. tax appraiser job in November 2011, also wrote on his job application and his résuméthat he was a certified, level four appraiser in Georgia — the highest level designated by the Georgia Department of Revenue, which runs a continuing-education program for appraisers that includes certification. But public records and an interview with a state official show that George did not receive a high enough score on an exam to be certified in the top level.

“Mr. George never achieved level four,” said Jud Seymour, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Revenue. “He did not achieve the prerequisite score.”

George passed the level four exam on his sixth try but did not receive the score on the level three exam necessary for level four certification, Seymour said. In the District, tax office appraisers are exempt from local licensing requirements, a city official said.

George’s tenure as chief appraiser has come under scrutiny in recent months after The Washington Post reported that his office had lowered the proposed taxable value of 500 commercial properties by $2.6 billion, settling the tax disputes before the city’s appeals process could play out.

The reductions, which D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi has said were necessary to avoid litigation, meant that the city collected about $48 million less in potential revenue for 2012 than the original assessments would have generated. The number of 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 who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. George has not returned calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Through a public records request, The Post in July sought a copy of George’s résuméand job application. Gandhi’s office declined to provide the documents, stating that they contained personal information exempt from disclosure.

The Post appealed to the mayor’s office, which last week ordered the agency to release the records, subject to redaction of personal information, saying that the public interest in such documents outweighed any privacy interest.

Résumés are generally released by other city agencies as well as the mayor’s office, which routinely makes them available without a formal public records request. According to D.C. law, an employee could face termination and possible prosecution by the city’s attorney general for making a false statement on the city’s job application.

Gandhi’s office this week did not respond to questions about George’s job application, or what agency officials may have known about George’s history in Fulton County before he was hired as the District’s chief appraiser for $130,000 annually.

Gandhi’s office has repeatedly said that personnel matters — including what officials knew about George’s background and when — are private. “As we have stated to you previously, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer does not make public personnel information about its employees,” Gandhi’s spokesman, David Umansky, said in an e-mail earlier this month.

But in a letter last week to Post columnist Colbert I. King, Gandhi provided detailed information about George's departure from Georgia, including a copy of George’s separation notice from Fulton County. Such notices are used by the state to help determine eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits.

Gandhi wrote that George was removed “without cause” and retained for “consulting and transitional services” afterward.

“Though his contract ended in its fourth year, it was for no cause,” Gandhi wrote. “Thus, it is clear that Fulton County concluded that Mr. George had committed no illegal or inappropriate acts during his tenure.”

Fulton County Board of Assessors Chairman Bill Huff said that George was terminated for making unilateral decisions to adjust property values in the county. Huff said the board did not need a reason to terminate George based on the terms of his contract, and indicated “no cause” on his separation notice because “that’s just the cleanest way to do it.”

“We didn’t have to have a cause,” Huff said. “It was a clean separation.”

Huff said that George was not called back to provide transitional consulting services.

Gandhi also said in his letter to King that a search firm had “presented no derogatory information regarding Mr. George or his employment with Fulton County” and that agency officials who followed up with a background check also were not presented with any troubling information. The search firm has declined to comment on the process.

The Post reported earlier this month that several female appraisers in 2010 filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Fulton County, which is pending. The suit does not name George as a defendant, but alleges problems with his management of the tax office. In court records and interviews with The Post, the appraisers allege in part that they were pushed to lower property values without justification.

In his letter to King, Gandhi wrote, “Much of the derogatory information . . . is given by a handful of terminated employees who brought suit against the county. The suit has yet to be tried and concluded before a finder of fact.”

Both Huff and former Fulton County chief appraiser Burt Manning have shared similar concerns in interviews with The Post about George’s management style and the property value reductions. George’s personnel file in Fulton, obtained by The Post through a public records request, contains his notice of termination but does not provide a reason for it.

George filed his own lawsuit against the county after he was terminated, which is a part of the public record. He dropped his complaint in March 2011, about eight months before he became chief appraiser in the District. In response to the lawsuit, Fulton County attorneys had argued that there was “a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for all of the [county’s] employment decisions.”

Huff has said that no one from the District had contacted him before George was hired. Manning, who had supervised George, has said he received several calls about George from people in the District but could not recall when. He said he referred callers to the county’s human resources department, though he said he corrected at least one caller from the District who had asked months ago for clarification on George’s appraisal certification level in Georgia.

Manning said he pointed out that George was not a level four appraiser and had “barely passed the appraiser three exam.”

Records show that George failed the level three exam twice before receiving a passing grade in 2008. The grade, however, was not high enough to qualify him to be a candidate for level four certification, said Seymour, the state Department of Revenue spokesman. George also took the level four exam, failing it five times before passing in 2011, records show. He received certificates that showed he had passed the level three and level four exams, but without a higher score on the level three test, he could not become certified as a level four appraiser, Seymour said.

“It’s like passing law school but not the bar,” Seymour said.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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