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Natwar Gandhi’s office prompted to conduct more thorough background checks

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The lack of thorough, pre-employment background checks at the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer has been a concern since 2001, when city officials learned that the agency’s general counsel was not a lawyer.

Saamir Kaiser, whose job was to give legal advice to Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, was convicted in 2002 of embezzling $250,000 in city funds, which he used to help pay for his wedding and honeymoon, and a Mercedes-Benz. An internal investigation found that Kaiser, who had served as Gandhi’s general counsel for five months, had falsified his credentials. Kaiser had previously worked in a D.C. law firm and as a staff lawyer with the D.C. financial control board.

“He had a cloak of legitimacy. But if they were doing these background checks in advance, they should have caught it,” said Jerry Malone, who was subsequently hired as the agency’s general counsel.

Malone said that then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams urged Gandhi to better vet potential employees. “The idea was that situations like Mr. Kaiser shouldn’t occur again,” he said.

Concerns were raised again in 2008 by Deputy Chief Financial Officer Stephen Cordi, hired by Gandhi to restructure a tax office rocked a year earlier by a $48 million fraud involving tax refunds, the largest embezzlement in District government history.

Cordi told internal affairs staff members that the agency needed to conduct more vigorous background checks before hiring. “Cordi believes that [the tax office] is a prime breeding ground for potential bribery of line employees,” according to an internal report recently obtained by The Washington Post. “Cordi felt that without some pre-employment screening, bad hiring decisions are made. Hiring an unqualified, ill equipped or morally corrupt employee can be even more costly before they are fereted [sic] out and terminated.”

The same year, then-D.C. Auditor Deborah A. Nichols conducted a review of the background check policy at the agency. She found that the agency conducted background checks only after employees were hired and that the investigations could take months to complete.

Nichols recommended pre-employment criminal and financial checks of all employees who handle money. “They said it was time and money,” Nichols said. “I think we’ve got both.”

In a written statement, agency officials said that most job candidates receive a screening prior to hiring that includes verification of degrees, current salary and a “Google search.” Agency officials said senior executives are screened more heavily with checks of civil and criminal court records, tax liens, education verification and employment history.

Background checks are conducted in-house after employees are hired, the agency said.

Tax office chief Cordi, in a written statement, said the concerns he identified to internal auditors in 2008 “have long-since been addressed to the satisfaction of internal and external auditors, although, like all other internal controls, they are constantly reviewed and improved.”

Agency officials added: “The hiring process within the [agency] is a lengthy one. As a practical matter, we must balance the requirements of pre-employment screenings with the agency’s need to fill positions and effectively deliver needed services.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company