D.C. Council expected to reconfirm CFO Natwar Gandhi
By Nikita Stewart,
The embattled D.C. Council is expected to reconfirm Natwar M. Gandhi to his second full five-year term as the District’s independent chief financial officer before its July 10 recess, with strong support from newly elected council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Finance Committee Chairman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
But Gandhi can expect tough questioning from council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), a longtime critic who has made it clear that he will focus on the embezzlement of $50 million by a mid-level manager during Gandhi’s watch as well as revenue estimates and a real estate tax collection decision Catania thought were questionable.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s decision Friday to renominate Gandhi just two weeks before the end of Gandhi’s term came after a concerted behind-the-scenes push by a local business community that credits the city’s financial chief with strong and steady stewardship.
A delay by Gray (D) in sending Gandhi’s name to the council for confirmation had made some business executives nervous about the stability of the District’s leadership, which has been badly shaken by political scandals and an ongoing federal corruption probe. And it stood in stark contrast to 2006, when Adrian M. Fenty (D), then mayor-elect, announced that he would renominate Gandhi nine months before the end of his term.
In meetings to discuss the state of the District’s government, Jim Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and other representatives of the business community urged the mayor and council to act more quickly. Talks began about two months ago, Dinegar said.
“The longer it [the delay in the nomination] went on, the more concerned we became,” he said. “Why in the middle of June are we just now talking about this, two weeks before the term ends? I’m thrilled that the mayor has renominated him, but now the battle moves to the council.”
Gandhi, 71, has been dogged in recent years by scandal within his agency, including the largest embezzlement in city government history when federal investigators uncovered the theft of $50 million by the mid-level manager of the tax office.
More recently, Gandhi has endured questions about his role in the awarding of the lucrative D.C. Lottery contract. And he has been deposed in a wrongful termination lawsuit by the former contracting officer.
In March, Gray took the unusual step of writing a letter to Gandhi that questioned his revenue estimates shortly after the CFO reported the District had a $240 million surplus. Gray and his colleagues had cut programs and instituted furloughs for employees based on Gandhi’s prediction of a deficit.
But Gray was complimentary Friday, calling Gandhi “a steady steward for the District’s finances for more than a decade.”
“I look forward to working even more closely with him toward the goal of restoring the District’s financial-management function to a model like those found in virtually every other state and city,” the mayor said in a news release.
Gandhi also issued a statement, in which he said he was “honored.”
Gandhi’s appointment requires the council’s approval. Several members said the current unease has made them more likely to support Gandhi’s continued tenure than they might have been otherwise.
Kwame R. Brown resigned last week as council chairman before pleading guilty to felony bank fraud and a misdemeanor campaign-finance violation. Former Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D) is set to soon begin a prison sentence of more than three years for stealing city funds intended for youth programs.
Against that backdrop, Mendelson said, Gandhi’s nomination would provide continuity and stability. Gandhi also has the support of Evans, whose finance and revenue committee would likely handle the confirmation before the entire council votes.
Mendelson said the vote could come soon. “My guess is that there is sentiment to move it before the council recess, which is July 10,” he said.
Despite his criticism of Gandhi, Catania said he expects the council to approve his reappointment because of the current crisis.
“What a ringing endorsement,” Catania said.
Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.