City’s chief tax appraiser embroiled in controversy
By Nikita Stewart and Debbie Cenziper,
ATLANTA — In 2009, when Tony L. George was the assistant chief appraiser in Fulton County, Ga., he was approached by his boss. Staff appraisers were complaining about his heavy-handed management style, saying he forced them to lower property values against their wishes.
“I said, ‘Tony, just pretend you were raised in the South. Talk to people differently,’ ” Burt Manning, the county’s former chief appraiser, recently recounted. “He just turned around and told them, ‘Go do it.’ And they didn’t like this.”
Concerns about George’s actions in lowering property values prompted his termination in 2010, Fulton County officials said. Later that year, several female appraisers filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the county, which is pending. In court records and recent interviews with The Washington Post, the appraisers allege in part that they were pushed to lower property values without justification. George filed his own lawsuit against the county alleging discrimination and breach of contract but dropped his complaint in March 2011.
The District hired him eight months later. He is now the city’s chief tax appraiser and once again embroiled in a controversy that involves reduced property values.
This year, George led an effort to settle assessment disputes that lowered the proposed taxable value of 500 commercial properties by $2.6 billion, eight times as much as the total reduction from 2011. The settlements represented a loss of about $48 million in potential revenue. One staff appraiser filed an anonymous complaint, and the FBI and internal auditors are investigating. George did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.
It’s unclear how much Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi or his office knew about George’s background when he was brought on in November. Despite repeated requests, Gandhi and his staff declined to provide information about what they knew and when, including whether they knew about George’s termination and the federal lawsuit, or about who made the decision to hire him, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters. The agency also declined to make public George’s résuméor job application; The Post has filed an appeal with the mayor’s office.
“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 last week.
For years, city officials, including former D.C. auditor Deborah A. Nichols, have urged Gandhi to thoroughly vet employees, particularly those with fiduciary responsibilities.
Agency officials said their screenings are adequate. In an interview with The Post last month, Gandhi said his agency has a “reputable recruiting firm to do our recruitment, and we rely on their referral to make sure all of this is done properly.” Gandhi’s office said that the firm provided “no derogatory information about Mr. George’s previous employment history.”
Agency officials said the McCormick Group, a regionally based executive search firm, conducted a pre-employment screening of George.
Bill McCormick, chief executive and president of the McCormick Group, said the depth of the screenings varies but declined to provide specifics on the vetting of George. He said the policy at Gandhi’s agency is to decline comment on personnel matters. “They would like us to adhere to that,” McCormick said. “These things are so confidential.”
Umansky said the firm consults with people who previously worked with job candidates. “If they find a red flag, they won’t send that person forward,” he said.
Gandhi’s office also said that a background check by the agency’s internal affairs unit was done after George was hired. Such checks, according to the agency, include information about the reasons for leaving prior jobs.
A bullying culture alleged
George, 48, grew up in New Jersey and has a marketing degree from Fairfield University in Connecticut, according to court records and his personnel file from Fulton County. He said he worked for two years in the retail clothing industry before making tax assessment a career.
In 1987, he began as a trainee in East Orange, N.J., eventually moving up in 2000 to become the tax administrator of Essex County. In 2003, the tax board voted to remove George, a Republican political appointee, amid a shift in the county from Republican to Democratic control. A Star-Ledger report at the time also said the tax board had received complaints from two town assessors, who said that their assessments had been changed by George’s office.
George later became a property tax consultant in Virginia before taking the No. 2 job in the Fulton County tax office in 2006.
In Georgia, George quickly clashed with some female appraisers, who believed, among other things, that he was favoring men, according to the federal lawsuit filed by five female appraisers in 2010. A sixth female appraiser later joined the suit. The suit was filed against the county; George was not a named defendant.
According to the complaint, the women said that George failed to give them the equipment needed to do their jobs, such as calculators and cameras, and assigned them to dangerous neighborhoods as punishment “for complaining about discrimination or other workplace issues.”
The complaint also described George as an intimidating manager who allowed a bullying culture to flourish, in one case allegedly attempting to “kick down” the door of an office used by one of the female appraisers.
In 2008, one of the appraisers, Leann Rossi, e-mailed Manning, the chief appraiser, describing a tense meeting with George. “I find it very disheartening to watch Mr. George belittle the intelligence of myself, my manager, and my co-workers,” Rossi wrote in the e-mail, obtained by The Post.
George wrote in a memo to Rossi and Manning that the incident was “a clear indication of insubordination and disregard of my authority.”
Fulton County officials did not return calls seeking comment about the lawsuit. County attorneys argued in their response to the complaint that there was no discrimination, saying, “Many employees, both male and female, disapproved of George’s management style.” The response also said the women were terminated or disciplined for various reasons, such as poor work performance.
But, in interviews with The Post, the female appraisers cited years of positive performance evaluations.
In a deposition taken in the case, George said he dispensed equipment to appraisers on a “need basis” and did not discriminate against women. He said that he never tried to kick down a door and that Manning did not talk to him about being heavy-handed.
Manning, who retired as chief appraiser this year, told The Post that he believed the female appraisers who filed suit were “disgruntled” employees with some overblown claims, such as being denied equipment. But Manning acknowledged that he had multiple conversations with George about his management style in the months leading up to George’s termination. “At the very least, he wasn’t polite when he talked to people,” Manning said.
In court documents and interviews, the female appraisers also said they were forced to sign off on lower property values — a concern shared by Manning and Fulton County Board of Assessors Chairman Bill Huff.
Huff told The Post that George made “unilateral decisions” to change values. Manning recounted similar concerns. Assessments “would make it to Tony’s desk and he would send it back down and say, ‘Lower it . . . sign it and send it back up,’ ” Manning said.
Two of the appraisers, Rebecca Canada and Theresa McGruder, both of whom were fired under George, said in an interview with The Post that they were uncomfortable with some of the lowered values that they were being asked to approve. Canada and McGruder said they began writing “Per Tony George” on changed assessments.
In the complaint, a third appraiser described similar pressure by supervisors under George: “The assessments presented for her to sign that she had not worked up or been allowed to study were incorrect and did not follow county and tax office policy, and were inconsistent with what was legally required of appraisers.”
During his deposition in the case, George said that appraisers did not complain to him about improper reductions in property values, although he said several managers flagged reductions made by another supervisor. Manning told The Post that he eventually changed procedures to ensure that appraisers were not forced to sign off on values they did not agree with.
Friends with ‘Big Poppa’
The Post obtained information about George’s termination through interviews and his personnel file, which was provided by Fulton County after a public records request. The file did not contain specific details about the events leading to George’s termination, such as examples of properties that had received lower assessments during George’s tenure.
But attorneys for the six female appraisers have asked questions in depositions about one property owner, Lee Najjar, also known as “Big Poppa,” a well-known developer often mentioned on television by former girlfriend Kim Zolciak, one of the stars of the reality series “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.”
Najjar’s company owned a shopping mall outside Atlanta in Union City. During his deposition in the lawsuit, George acknowledged being friends with Najjar and said he had inspected Najjar’s house. “I inspect occasionally properties of all types — it’s a very nice house,” George said.
The proposed assessed values for Najjar’s house and mall were both significantly reduced in 2008, tax records show. David Fitzgibbon, Fulton County’s newly hired chief appraiser, told The Post that some reduction wasn’t surprising because both properties appeared to have been initially overvalued.
In a phone interview, Najjar declined to address the assessments, saying he uses a private firm to handle tax issues. He said he had met George through the assessment process and described him as an acquaintance. “I’m friends with everybody. What’s a friend? What’s an acquaintance?” Najjar said.
During his deposition, George was also questioned about Orlando Allen, whom George said he had known since his high school days in New Jersey. In March 2009, Allen was hired as a temporary appraisal technician in the tax office, records show.
Allen’s position was cut in November 2009. About that time, he created a company that began to manage Najjar’s mall, records and interviews show.
Phone numbers for Allen were either disconnected or did not receive messages. He was one of 11 people indicted in New Jersey in July in an unrelated case of an alleged $15 million mortgage fraud, federal court records show. He has pleaded not guilty. Nace Naumoski and Shailesh Deshpande, listed as Allen’s attorneys in the case, did not return calls.
George said in his deposition that he is no longer friends with Allen or Najjar.
In the end, George’s contract with the county was terminated in April 2010, personnel records show. George had refused a request for his resignation, claiming that he was targeted because he is black. George also alleged that he was terminated because he had flagged improper reductions in property values by others in the office. He filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the county in August 2010, saying he “performed his responsibilities fully and exemplary” and “was given accolades from his performance by County personnel and the public.”
George later dropped his lawsuit.
During his deposition in the appraisers’ lawsuit, George said he no longer believed that he had been discriminated against. He said he did not enter into any settlements with the county. He eventually got an assessment job in another county in Georgia before moving to the District late last year.
The female appraisers filed the federal discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Georgia in December 2010 — a year before George was hired to serve as the District’s chief appraiser.
Details about George’s involvement in the case probably would not have shown up through a simple Web search. The case is publicly accessible in federal court records, but because George was not a named defendant, his connection to the case would not be easy to find.
Both Manning, the former chief appraiser, and Huff, the head of the county assessors board, said they were familiar with the suit. Huff said he was not contacted by anyone in the District before George’s hiring. Manning said he received several calls from people in the District, including one in recent weeks. He said he referred callers to the county’s human resources office.
Manning said he did not believe that George had an improper agenda but rather a gruff management style. “He was accused of, I want to say, strong-arming,” Manning said. “There were a number of internal complaints.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.