D.C. Council member questions Inspector General Charles Willoughby’s effectiveness

In the past two years, D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby has investigated two of the city’s most politically sensitive controversies — how the District awarded its lottery contract and whether public school employees had cheated to improve students’ scores on standardized tests.

In both cases, revelations subsequent to Willoughby’s investigations have prompted some D.C. Council members and Vincent C. Gray administration officials to ask whether his office has been too timid to effectively perform its watchdog role. They doubt his willingness to use the agency’s $15.7 million budget and 112 employees to quickly and thoroughly stamp out waste, fraud and abuse.

And in an unusual step, council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) recently requested that Willoughby explain delays in investigations and answer questions about the school testing probe.

“We are concerned that a delay in producing reports compromises everyone’s ability to [uncover] fraud, abuse and waste, and undermines the public’s confidence in the OIG and their confidence in the District’s government as a whole,” McDuffie, chairman of the council’s Government Operations Committee, wrote in a letter to Willoughby.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he supports McDuffie’s efforts to review Willoughby’s effectiveness.

Willoughby, the inspector general since 2005, declined to be interviewed about the criticism or about his office in general. His top deputy, Blanche Bruce, said that “the reports that this office issues speak for themselves.”

In a Jan. 18 letter responding to McDuffie, Willoughby said, “It is incumbent that the OIG’s work not be conducted through the press or media.” He also said it is crucial that his office’s work be “as thorough and accurate as possible,” but that it also be done “as expeditiously as possible.”

The lottery investigation was requested in July 2009, after suspicions about the contract award became fodder for political attacks during a heated mayoral campaign. Two members of then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s Cabinet — then-Attorney General Peter J. Nickles and then-procurement chief David P. Gragan — urged Willoughby to examine the contract, including council members’ handling of it.

It was 18 months before Willoughby issued a report. It totaled 19 pages, and although it cited some contracting irregularities, it did not find wrongdoing by council members. The report addressed allegations that council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) had offered to support one lottery bidder in return for that bidder’s withdrawing from an unrelated land deal with Metro. Graham served on the Metro board at the time. Investigators concluded that there was not “sufficient evidence to support or conclude that the councilmember had acted improperly.”

But a subsequent investigation, undertaken on behalf of the Metro board, concluded that Graham had offered a quid pro quo that constituted a violation of the board’s code of conduct. Graham has denied wrongdoing, and the matter is under review by the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability.

Nickles, now in private practice, is critical of Willoughby’s handling of the lottery probe. “I was interviewed by one of the IG’s people. I was assured that they would interview the people I suggested,” he said. “It turned out they didn’t do anything.”

Nickles praised Willoughby’s investigations of some matters during the Fenty administration. Those investigations — including the inquiry into the government’s dealings with Banita Jacks, who was convicted in 2009 of murdering her four children — found numerous management failings. But Nickles said the lottery investigation demonstrated Willoughby’s reluctance to sort out politically messy issues.

“The Jacks thing was perfect for them because everybody wanted to get to the bottom of the problem,” he said. “But when you had something that was controversial, like the lottery, and there were lots of different council members, politicians, vested interests involved, then they were not very willing to do it.”

One long-awaited inspector general’s report involved Nickles and was undertaken after questions emerged in 2009 about the Fenty administration’s donation of a surplus firetruck and ambulance to a Dominican Republic resort town. The affair implicated a top aide and a close political ally of Fenty’s, and when Nickles issued a cursory report absolving them of wrongdoing, council members asked Willoughby to investigate.

His report, issued two years after the initial request, mostly echoed the findings of a politically charged council probe that wrapped up within six months.

School testing probe

The probe of school testing was wrapped up in 17 months, and its adequacy remains in question.

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson asked Willoughby in March 2011 to probe suspicions raised in a USA Today article that focused on abnormally high erasure rates on tests taken at Noyes Education Campus, one of the schools that showed the most impressive gains during then-Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s tenure.

Willoughby’s final report, issued in August and totaling 14 pages, found no evidence of widespread cheating at public schools. It did find some testing-integrity problems at Noyes, including coaching by one teacher who admitted to helping students while they took their exams.

A former Noyes principal, Adell Cothorne, appeared on PBS’s “Frontline” this month and made allegations of test tampering at the school. In 2011, she said, she walked in on three staff members who appeared to be making erasures in students’ completed test booklets. She made similar allegations in a federal lawsuit filed later in 2011.

Cothorne told “Frontline” that she was not interviewed by Willoughby’s office.

In his letter to McDuffie, Willoughby said his investigators asked to meet with Cothorne starting in April 2011. But her attorney, he wrote, would meet only with investigators from the federal Education Department.

Devanshi P. Patel, an attorney for Cothorne, told The Washington Post that she had expected to meet with local and federal investigators in May 2011 but that the meeting was canceled. “She did not refuse to have any interview,” Patel said. “Nobody came back around to talk to us.”

Federal investigators eventually spoke with Cothorne, Willoughby said. But “leads identified in those allegations were pursued with negative results, resulting in no basis to warrant expansion of the investigation,” he wrote to McDuffie.

Willoughby defended his decision not to expand the probe beyond Noyes. A consulting firm hired by the city found dozens of schools that had suspicious rates of erasures, but those findings alone could not substantiate cheating, he wrote.

Budget testimony

In budget testimony before the D.C. Council last April, Willoughby noted that his office’s budget, like those of other city agencies, had been trimmed as the economic downturn reduced city revenue.

Much of his agency’s budget, he said, is devoted to mandatory items, including the District’s annual comprehensive audit and Medicaid fraud probes. An audit and inspection plan issued last fall sets out 93 discrete audits and five “special evaluations” to be conducted in the current fiscal year.

Those do not include the dozens of unplanned investigations the office launches every year. In the letter to McDuffie, Willoughby reported that his office opened 227 formal probes in fiscal 2012, the highest number in four years. Prosecutors had accepted 18 of those cases to pursue criminal charges.

Willoughby also said low salaries had contributed to staff turnover that exacerbated delays. He identified other problems that can prolong investigations, including a lack of investigative tools, a lengthy subpoena process and the need to coordinate with other agencies’ investigations.

 
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