D.C. Council report faults Gray administration for “nepotism and cronyism”


Vincent Gray and then-fellow candidate Sulaimon Brown talk during a debate in June 2010. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 23, 2011

A special investigative committee formed by the D.C. Council concluded in a report released Tuesday that “nepotism and cronyism” in the hiring practices of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration violated local and federal law and damaged the city’s reputation.

The report, released after a six-month council investigation, portrays Gray (D) as “disconnected” and aloof as he allowed several top aides to control critical personnel decisions in the early days of his administration.

The report also confirms allegations by former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that a top Gray campaign official paid him to disparage then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) during the 2010 primary campaign, although the probe found that Brown exaggerated the amount.

The probe did not uncover direct involvement by Gray in his administration’s most controversial personnel decisions, but the report once again puts the focus on a mayor struggling to gain his footing more than seven months after his inauguration.

“Ultimately, Mayor Gray, as chief executive, is responsible for the actions and errors of his campaign, transition and administration,” the report states. “And when those actions and errors were discovered, it is unfortunate that the Gray administration did not act more swiftly to investigate and repudiate the unlawful actions that occurred.”

The report was released on the same day that Gray was hosting a public preview of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial near the Tidal Basin, an event that he spent weeks preparing for.

“At the end of the day, it is my administration,” Gray said at the memorial. “And I take responsibility.” He said he is paying close attention to all hiring decisions now.

The 47-page report puts much of the blame on three former top aides: Judy Banks, who was the interim head of the D.C. Department of Human Resources; Gerri Mason Hall, who was Gray’s chief of staff; and Lorraine Green, who chaired the mayor’s campaign and the transition.

The report accuses the three of orchestrating inappropriate personnel moves, including the hiring of Hall’s son to a city job in possible violation of federal nepotism laws.

“He reasonably relied on that sorority of women, but they betrayed his trust,” said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who led the probe. “But at the end of the day, he is still responsible. He picked them, and they are his subordinates.”

Gray said he hasn’t spoken to Banks, Green or Hall in “quite some time.” He declined to say whether he felt betrayed by the actions described in the report. “The whole series of events is personally hurtful,” he said.

Neither Banks’s attorney nor Green’s returned calls seeking comment Tuesday. Kenneth L. Wainstein, Hall’s attorney, said his client had already acknowledged an “error in judgement” in the hiring of her son. “She has always maintained, however, that she never intended to circumvent any laws or rules when assisting her son’s transition from campaign worker to paid District employee,” he said in a statement. “It’s gratifying that the Council also found no intentional violation on her part.”

The probe also explored allegations by Brown, the former mayoral candidate, that he was promised a city job in return for harassing Fenty on the campaign trail and was paid by Gray advisers, including campaign consultant Howard Brooks.

The report represents the first official assessment of Brown’s claims. Federal prosecutors and a congressional committee are also investigating the matter.

Although the report says Brown’s testimony was “undercut by . . . his tendency to exaggerate, seek the limelight, and embellish his story for dramatic effect,” as well as his “erratic behavior,” it concludes that Brown received at least $1,160 from Brooks. The committee also found evidence of a promise to provide a job in the “extraordinary actions” that Hall and Green undertook to find Brown a city position. But the committee, which is scheduled to vote Wednesday on adoption of the draft report, did not directly link Gray to the payments.

Glenn F. Ivey, Brooks’s attorney, declined to comment.

Brown was hired as a special assistant in the Department of Health Care Finance, even though senior administration officials were aware that he had a “poor” credit history, the report says. In February, after Brown’s hiring — and his record of arrests — came to light, he was fired.

The committee report concludes that Brown’s $110,000 salary was “beyond what could legitimately be deemed reasonable.” Gray initially suggested that Brown was qualified for the special assistant job, citing a résuméthat claimed experience in auditing and accounting. But the report says that there was no attempt to verify Brown’s résumé and that the claims in many cases were exaggerated.

The report does not disclose any information about the status of the grand jury investigation underway in connection with Brown’s allegations. But the committee is recommending that the U.S. attorney’s office investigate Brown’s and Banks’s conduct during the council investigation. The report indicates that Banks may have committed perjury in her testimony before the committee and that Brown may have made “false statements.”

Brown, who sparred with council members when he testified before the committee in July, called the report a “whitewash from the beginning.”

“It just solidified in my mind the treatment a citizen of the District of Columbia will receive if they try to say anything negative about an elected official,” Brown said. “They must think District of Columbia residents are dumb.”

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who helped spearhead the probe, said the committee thoroughly reviewed 20,000 pages of documents and 25 hours of public testimony given under oath. Still, Catania said, it would be premature to assume that Gray won’t face legal problems.

“Our investigation did not produce evidence that demonstrated Mayor Gray had knowledge of these issues,” Catania said, “but whether he really did is a separate issue.”

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment Tuesday.

The committee found that five adult children of senior Gray advisers were put on the payroll shortly after the mayor’s inauguration in January, including two hires that were “improper and likely illegal.”

Although the District does not have a nepotism policy, the report notes that the city government is subject to federal nepotism restrictions.

In what the report calls “the clearest evidence of illegal nepotism,” the administration hired Hall’s son to a $55,000-a-year position in the Department of Parks and Recreation.

According to the report, Hall e-mailed her son’s résumé to Banks at 8:54 a.m. Jan. 14, less than two weeks after the inauguration. Twenty minutes later, according to the report, “Ms. Banks instructed her staff to process Mr. Hall’s paper work for his position at the Department of Parks and Recreation.”

The committee also concluded that it might have been illegal for the son of Rochelle Webb, who had been named head of the Department of Employment Services, to be given a job in the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

In addition, the committee questioned the hiring of Peyton Brooks, the son of campaign consultant Howard Brooks. Although the panel determined that the Brooks hire did not violate nepotism laws because Howard Brooks was not a city employee, the report says the hire “violated several standard personnel procedures.”

“Peyton Brooks stated that he was never interviewed by anyone in the District government before he was hired and never received a job description for his position,” the report states.

In addition to Hall and Webb, their sons have left city government. Peyton Brooks also gave up his position.

The report also faults the Gray administration for ignoring limits on executive pay and bonuses. Despite a District law that restricts executive branch salaries, Gray advisers approved numerous salaries that exceeded the cap. The report calls it “a cavalier attitude . . .. during a period of fiscal constraint” that “caused residents to lose confidence in their government and public officials.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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