D.C. Council members voice concerns over vetting of chief tax appraiser
By Nikita Stewart and Debbie Cenziper,
D.C. Council members are questioning the vetting procedures in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer after learning new details about how the city’s chief tax appraiser was terminated for his actions in lowering property values in a previous job.
After Tony L. George was hired as chief appraiser late last year, he began leading an effort in the D.C. tax office to settle disputes over property assessments. Overall, the proposed taxable value on 500 commercial properties was lowered by $2.6 billion. One staff appraiser filed an anonymous complaint, leading to probes by the FBI and internal auditors and, most recently, questions by congressional investigators.
Officials in Fulton County, Ga., say George was terminated from his job as an assistant chief appraiser in April 2010 after complaints about reductions in assessments. George initially filed a lawsuit claiming breach of contract and discrimination but dropped it in March 2011. Another lawsuit against the county by six female staff appraisers claims George and other supervisors discriminated against them. That case, detailed in The Washington Post earlier this week, is pending.
“The fact that the individual in charge of the [tax appeals] process has a history of this compounds the need to have answers sooner rather than later,” council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said Friday.
Council member Jack Evans, chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, will hold an oversight hearing of the tax office Oct. 10. Evans (D-Ward 2) said he is withholding judgment until he hears more facts.
“We’re going to have a hearing, and at the end of the hearing, we will be able to make a determination,” he said. “I have to do my own fact-gathering.”
Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi and his staff have declined requests by The Post for George’s résumé or job application and for information about what the city knew about George’s work history.
In recent weeks, investigators with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform have been asking about internal controls at the tax office, its business and financial practices, and personnel issues, according to three people with direct knowledge of the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Meanwhile, Gandhi’s office had a Friday deadline to respond to questions from Catania about the internal controls in place to protect the city’s computer-assisted mass appraisal database. Catania said he did not learn about an internal audit that found the system was “significantly flawed” until an August article in The Post. “I am not suggesting wrongdoing,” he said. “But the easiest way to get to wrongdoing is by having holes in the system.”
Catania said he urged Gandhi to be as open as possible in answering questions from the council and the public. “His public relations skills have served him well,” Catania said. “He has survived many of what can be called scandals, has survived many crises, because he is adroit at handling the public. The best approach would be one of transparency and full disclosure.”
In 2007, a mid-level manager in the tax office was charged with running a $48 million embezzlement scheme, the largest in D.C. history. Years earlier, investigators learned that Gandhi’s general counsel had no law degree and had stolen $250,000 from a tobacco settlement fund.
“Talented hiring seems to elude the CFO in key selections,” said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). “I mean, what kind of investigation occurred into [George’s] background? Tell me, if people had made that inquiry, would they have hired him? And if they had made the inquiry, and found all the information and hired him anyway, that raises even more serious questions.”
Gandhi, as the city’s chief financial officer, is independent of the District government and has autonomy over his staff and operations. While the mayor appoints the city’s fiscal chief to a five-year term, the mayor cannot remove him without a two-thirds vote of the council.
Last year, council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) pushed for better vetting of employees after hiring missteps in the mayor’s administration. She said she wanted to know what was learned about George through background checks by Gandhi’s office and the executive search firm hired by the office.
“It’s the most basic kind of personnel requirement, especially for people in sensitive positions,” she said. “What kind of due diligence was done?”