Gandhi has his own nickname, proudly referring to himself as “The Supreme Bean Counter.”
The boast is an oxymoron, fusing the humility of an immigrant who arrived in the United States as a young man with all of $7 and the cockiness of a city official often credited with reforming a finance agency that once piled thousands of unprocessed tax returns in a basement office.
But under Gandhi’s watch, the city agency also has been ground zero for controversy, including criticism for poor internal controls and a $48 million embezzlement case by tax office employee Harriette Walters. Most recently, The Washington Post published articles about agency database systems that may be at risk of manipulation.
Gandhi, who headed the tax office before ascending to fiscal chief, has outlasted the firestorms despite the outcry from detractors who say he is an autocrat bent on holding onto power by wooing city politicians and policymakers. His supporters, however, say he has prevailed because he is “The Survivor” — a dependable steward of city finances. But as he begins his third term as CFO, he is sliding into perhaps the most turbulent period of his tenure.
“People like me come and go,” Gandhi, 72, said in an interview in his office, where the walls hold scores of framed articles about him. “I have no illusion. Even though I have a five-year tenure, and I have spent 12 years here and four mayors, God, I take one day at a time. You cannot take these things for granted here.”
A question of focus
Friends and foes agree that Gandhi, an accountant, is an administrator who puts far less emphasis on the day-to-day oversight of his office than what he believes is his broader mission: to ensure that the city remains in the black while earning strong bond ratings from Wall Street.
A report commissioned by the D.C. Council after the embezzlement case in 2007 said that Gandhi’s “overriding concerns have been maintenance of the district’s favorable bond rating, receipt of clean independent audit opinions and improved customer service . . . [T]he unremitting focus on these concerns, however, caused managers within the OCFO to place a much lower priority on imposing controls or meaningful oversight.”
Gandhi, a published poet born in Gujarat, India, doesn’t disagree with the words used to describe his management style. “I can see that, but imagine this: If I were not concentrated on that . . . if that is the charge, how am I able to balance the budget?” asked Gandhi, the eldest of seven children. “Do you think balancing [the] budget happens because I sit here in this office? Or credit ratings are maintained because I just sit in the office and contemplate that or write poetry about that?”